By Cian Fahey
Since being drafted in 2009, Ziggy Hood has played substantial snaps for the Pittsburgh Steelers and been a starter at defensive end for the majority of the past two seasons. During the three seasons that Hood has been with the Steelers, the defense has ranked first in the league in points allowed twice.
When Hood first became a starter, in 2010, the Steelers run defense was historically good. While the San Francisco 49ers had a great run defense last season, the season before the Steelers only gave up 62.8 yards per game on the ground. To put that in context, the second closest team that year were the Chicago Bears who gave up 90 yards per game and the 49ers gave up 77.2 last season.
The question remains however whether Hood was a key performer for the Steelers, or a passenger who was benefiting from the ludicrously talented front seven around him.
Without Casey Hampton early this year, and Brett Keisel adding another season to his resume as the lone veteran defensive end, the Steelers will likely rely on Hood more this year. The primary responsibility for Hood playing in the Steelers\’ scheme is to consume blockers and shut down the running game.
Often this is something that is difficult to properly evaluate, but the success of the team as a whole and the linebackers in particular reflects the success of the defensive line. Judging Hood by the success of the Steelers\’ defense and their linebackers, he is a star. However, if you go by Pro Football Focus\’ reviews, Hood is one of the worst defensive linemen in the NFL.
Hood had the second lowest stop percentage of all 3-4 ends in 2011, after having the lowest in 2010.
Even though he has extensive experience on the field at this stage, Hood still believes that he is learning the position which obviously would affect his role. The 25-year-old recently said of the 2011 season, “I think I learned a lot from the playbook. I learned a lot more about my position. It\’s an ongoing process. From the first day, I am constantly learning and getting more confident in my abilities. Ultimately, as I\’m more confident, I\’m able to do more. I think it will show on the field.”
Hood\’s approach this off-season should see major changes on the field also as his workouts and transformation has been well documented. Hood believes that he has added 20 lbs of muscle, while losing 18 lbs of fat this off-season, generally the body doesn\’t work that way, but regardless his recognition of his need to get in better shape somewhat acknowledges his previous performances on the field.
Being a workout warrior isn\’t uncommon in the NFL, nor is it massively beneficial. It does help that Hood has bulked up and looked to add greater girth and power, but it won\’t solely turn him into a star defensive end.
Hood has done more than enough during his short stint in Pittsburgh so far that he is all but guaranteed his roster spot, that is not under threat, but he is entering his fourth season in the league this year. He is essentially a veteran. Hood needs to prove to the Steelers that he can be a leading defensive end for this team, a team which is used to high quality play from their ends, or they may need to contemplate investing high draft picks in the position once again.
If Hood can be a dominant player against the run, then he will be a great asset to the Steelers defense. Even though it is not a priority, Hood also doesn\’t offer much in the ways of a pass rush. He had 1.5 sacks last season as part of 5.5 for his career. The potential is there for him to be as disruptive as a Keisel or Aaron Smith, but he needs to have a Lawrence Timmons type of breakout year to make people forget about his early struggles. Timmons shared some of Hood\’s early struggles when he had an inconsistent first season as a starter at inside linebacker, but he overcame those issues to become a key player for the Steelers defense.
Those early struggles have largely gone unnoticed to this point, but the further the team moves away from the Hampton, Keisel and Smith era, the more Hood\’s performances will come into focus.
Follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf