Don\’t Expect A Training Camp Competition Along The Steelers Defensive Line

By Matthew Marczi

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer Ed Bouchette speculated about it last season. Jim Wexell of Steel City Insider suggests that it will come during this offseason instead. But will it actually take place, and what are the ramifications should it occur?

I am talking about a suggestion that has floated around for a few seasons now, namely a battle for the starting defensive end spot between third-year player Cameron Heyward and, not the aging veteran Brett Keisel, but Heyward’s fellow former first round defensive end, the 26-year old Ziggy Hood.

Entering his fifth season as a professional, though just the second as a projected starter, the general consensus is that Hood’s game is not at the level of Keisel’s; Keisel is the superior of the two, and his starting job should be safe in the final year of his contract.

Their back of the card statistics are, in fact, fairly comparable. Both started every game this past season. Keisel accumulated 46 total tackles, with 26 of the solo variety, while Hood finished the year with 42 total tackles and 25 solo. Keisel edged out in sacks with 4.5 to Hood’s 3, but he managed just one pass deflection (after having 13 over the previous two seasons), two less than Hood.

What really separated the performances of the two defensive ends, however, was their ability to get to the quarterback. Keisel may have had 1.5 sacks more than Hood, but his 40 total quarterback pressures more than doubled Hood’s, who had 15 entering the season finale.

Statistics-centric websites such as Pro Football Focus have long been down on Hood as a defensive end by frequently citing his poor Pass Rushing Productivity. While it is true that such a figure might be less significant for a defensive end in the Steelers’ scheme, the fact that Keisel more than doubled his total pressures (despite 40 being a very impressive number for the position) does speak to the fact that Hood’s pass rushing ability has been lacking.

On the other hand, in just under a third of Hood’s snaps, Heyward tallied just three quarterback pressures, including 1.5 sacks. Totaling 19 tackles with 15 being solo, it is certainly not clear by any means that inserting Heyward into the starting lineup over Hood at left defensive end would make the Steelers a better team in any way.

That is not to say that Hood’s position is safe, or that the team does not recognize some issues with his game. linebackers coach Keith Butler said as much in his post-draft press conference discussing the sixth round selection of inside linebacker Vince Williams:

“Ziggy Hood has some technical stuff that John [Mitchell] has to work with him on. And John knows about that so we’re going to try to get those things clarified and work that out and hopefully we’ll be good against the run.”

As was widely publicized within Steelers circles, Hood spent last season improving his physical fitness, and it is debatable as to how well that served him during 2012. As Mark Kaboly writes for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, however, Hood has forgone his focus on the physical aspect of the game and rededicated his attention to the technical component of his position, which should serve him well in 2013.

The Steelers are in a peculiar situation in that both of their starting defensive ends are entering the final years of their current contracts. On one side of the coin, Keisel has clearly been the better player, having gone to a Pro Bowl and being named an alternate on another occasion. On the other, he is quickly approaching the end of his career, with his 35th birthday approaching in September.

Many have speculated that the Steelers might try to work out an extension with Hood this offseason. It would be a tough sell, however, to extend the contract of a starter only to have him lose out in a position battle, especially if he would be counted upon to be a starter again in 2014 should the Steelers not re-sign Keisel.

It is for this reason that I do not believe that much will come of a serious camp competition between Hood and Heyward for a starting job if it is the team’s intention to retain Hood. However, Heyward could very well win the right to more snaps during the season.

Coupled with the fact that Heyward has not given any meaningful indications that he is a superior 3-4 defensive end to Hood, I would wager that a starting position is not up for grabs along the defensive line, but that playing time very much is.

Unlike the situation between cornerbacks Keenan Lewis and Cortez Allen this offseason, Heyward has not shown any abilities that Hood lacks, whereas Allen demonstrated a penchant for turnovers that has been absent from Lewis’ game. In that instance, the team chose to retain the veteran Ike Taylor and allowed the younger, more long-term solution in Lewis to walk.

If both parties are willing to cooperate, it is not unlikely that the Steelers try to retain both Hood and Keisel for the 2014 season. Keisel has spoken before about the very real possibility that 2013 could be his last season, and could potentially accept less money and a reduced role in 2014 to allow Heyward to start opposite Hood.

Unless Hood completely bottoms out in 2013, I do not see a likely scenario in which the Steelers part ways with a young veteran with significant starting experience who is likely to command less than market value for 3-4 defensive ends, and I fully expect him to remain a starter in 2013.

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • TJimmy

    Maybe the real camp battle will be between Keisel and Heyward. Keisel is aging and Heyward has another year of experience behind him.

  • Shea Fahr

    I still think if Hood can fix some of his technique, he can be more than adequate. I also would have to think they are going to want to see more of what they have in Cameron. Keep rotating Cam in with Keisel to keep the beard fresh…this year and 2014.

  • steeltown

    Agreed. Besides, why replace a guy that you are hoping improves, he wont be able to show any improvement from the sideline. Keep him in and let him earn his new contract. Like Bryan mentioned, he shouldn’t command a huge payday, which is exactly what we need moving forward into the 2014 and 2015 seasons.

    Also, remember we are one injury away from Cam being the full time starter anyway

  • steeltown

    Agreed.. and with Keisel and Al Woods also being UFA’s next offseason, we’ll need Hood. Despite what people say about his overall play, the Defense has still been tops in the League with Hood as a starter.

    I think Polamalu’s injury issues and the overall health of our OLB’s over the past two seasons has been the main reason for the Defenses shortcomings

  • sgtrobo

    Heyward played about 1/6th of the snaps that Hood did on defense. Comparing their stats doesn’t really do them justice. In the first game vs. the Ravens, Heyward absolutely looked better vs. both the run and the pass than Hood has ever looked. Go through, play by play, the All-22 and see what you think. That said, I don’t think there will be a camp competition, but there rarely is true competition when one of the players is an entrenched veteran. That said, I really pull for Ziggy. He has a fantastic work ethic and seems like the ultimate team guy. I just think that Heyward really has the physical tools to excel as a LDE for us, and Ziggy is more of a penetrating interior guy, and it really shows in their games.

  • sgtrobo

    “he won’t be able to show any improvement from the sideline”. Agreed, which is why it’s ridiculous to have a 1st rounder stuck on the sideline for his 3rd consecutive season.

  • steeltown

    Sooo you replace Hood (a 1st Rder who is due an extension) with another 1st Rder? That’s alittle redundant. We are one injury away from Cam starting full time anyway.

    Cam just turned 24yrs old.. he has plenty of football ahead of him

  • sgtrobo

    or you let Hood have a go at RDE where he can be more of a penetrator and use his explosiveness, rather than have him play LDE, where we do more read-react, and where cam’s extra height and length can help substantially.

  • steeltown

    That’s a thought.. I wonder if they ever alternate in practice, like Offensive tackles

  • r4kolb

    Isn’t the real problem the fact the Steelers may have wiffed on both Hood and Hayword? Neither is that good.

  • steeltown

    The Defense has remained tops in the League since the drafting of Hood.. and like mentioned above Heyward hasn’t really been given the full reins, cant really gauge how good he is yet

  • cencalsteeler

    This may surprise people, but Hoods stats are not that far off from Smiths. I don’t understand why Hood gets looked down on so much.

  • steeltown

    I think its because he doesn’t get many sacks (or as many sacks as A.Smith did) which coincidentally is not even the responsibility of a 3-4 DE, but Ive always said we’ll never fully replace a guy like Smith, you just cant, he’s one of the great 3-4DE’s of his generation.

  • Shea Fahr

    Exactly. Plus, it is not like Hood got much help from the OLB playing behind him over the last 2 years either due to Hamstrings, Ankles ect. And still managed to stay on top as far as Defense ranking. I think people are a little rough on him. He still has some learning to do just like the rest of the Guys working thru their Rookie contracts.

  • steeltown

    In the end it may be a blessing (having a top ranked Defense yet at the same time Hood not appearing to have high market value) because as Bryan mentioned, if he’s given an extension it might be a reasonable one

  • r4kolb

    The “D” being tops in the league has more to do with Coach LeBeau’s system then Hood being good, not? All I’m saying is for a #1 pick on a scale of 1 to 5 I give him a 2. What would you rate him steeltown? As far as Heyword goes don’t you think if he showed anything in practice to merit starting, or even more playing time, don’t you think he’d have gotten it? Unless of course you think Hood is really that good Heyward should be sitting? I just don’t see it.

  • r4kolb

    Good point. That may be what I am missing. The system he is in and the fact I look at what A. Smith did I’m grading him unfairly. Although as a #1 I should expect a lot.

  • steeltown

    I put Hood at a 3 I guess, he and the coaches know he needs to work on his technique, I guess we’ll see what comes of it

    I think Heyward has shown flashes, the issue may be that the coaching staff want him at RDE, which puts him behind Keisel who’s been playing great the last couple seasons

  • Shea Fahr

    I agree.

  • sgtrobo

    this is what I think too. They want Heyward to take over for Keisel. Maybe Hood can’t play at all on the left side?

    as for practice, I take what he did in the 2 games where he got more than a handful of snaps as proof that he is ready to play the game. Watch the all-22 in the 2 games that he did play meaningful snaps and tell me the kid isn’t ready

  • walter mason

    I agree We know what Hood can do. Play Cameron. I thought he showed flashes of potential.

  • walter mason

    I think we absolutely should expect more from a number one draft pick. If Hood was picked 4th through 7th like A. Smith or Keisel it wouldnt be an issue and we would be praising him as a great find.
    However he was picked number one and you have to think of who else was left on the board. So we try to make up for our mistake and we pick defensive line number one again. Its too early to say we whiffed on both. We need to play Cam and find out….

  • walter mason

    Because he was a first round pick!

  • Matthew Marczi

    He was the 32nd overall pick. That may nominally be first rounder, but you have to understand that it’s different from being a top 20 pick. Besides, where you’re drafted isn’t necessarily all that important. We merely hope that our 17th overall pick this year, for example, can hope to even come close to a former undrafted free agent that the Steelers cut multiple times. Yes, the higher you’re drafted, the general idea is that you have a higher chance of excelling in the league, but that doesn’t mean that a sixth rounder at the same position in the same draft won’t be better than you. It just means teams thought you were more of a sure thing, or needed less polish to get you to that level.

    Here’s a thought I never had before, but I think it could be an interesting though experiment: what would everybody think of Ziggy Hood’s play up until now if he were drafted in the second round instead of the first?

  • Matthew Marczi

    This article is mine actually, steeltown. ;)

  • steeltown

    I think you are looking at it in the wrong light, best player available or not, most likely the thinking was they chose a DE (Hood) to groom at a time when A.Smith was nearing the end, then two yrs later chose Heyward to groom now that Keisel is nearing the end. I don’t think they made the Heyward selection because they felt they failed on the Hood selection. In fact the season before they selected Heyward our Defense was #1 against the run and #2 overall in Hoods first year as a starter

  • steeltown

    He almost was.. haha

    But you are right, it would be less of an issue for some

  • steeltown

    I apologize my friend… im to used to giving kudos to Bryan ha!

  • Matthew Marczi

    The only problem with that is that Keisel has been playing too well, especially in the pass rush. 40 pressures from a 3-4 DE that isn’t J.J. Watt is exceptional, even if it only translated into 4.5 sacks. Lawrence Timmons was second on the team in pressures…with 19. I’m not sure the team can justify taking that production off the field just now. Plus, aside from last year, he has usually been good for 6 or 7 pass deflections a year. I do think that Heyward will play more this year, on both sides, however.

  • TJimmy

    He’s a year older so can he duplicate that this year? He performed well overall but was off to a slow start last year if I remember correctly.

  • Matthew Marczi

    Well, I certainly couldn’t rule out the possibility that if Keisel slacks and Heyward shines the latter might take over the spot. Especially if it coincides with Keisel missing a game, which he almost always does, with the exception of last year. I will definitely be paying close attention to reports on Heyward during training camp and focusing on him during the preseason though to see if he’s grown. I believe he had an ankle injury last offseason.

  • cencalsteeler

    Just my opinion here, once a player is picked, the order in which they were picked is a non issue once they are on the team. I would expect a fourth rounder to play with as much heart as a first rounder. To play in the NFL is a privilege, regardless of what order got you to “the big stage”. Hood has big shoes to fill replacing a future hall of famer, no doubt, but he doesn’t get in trouble, he’s a workout warrior, a team player, and a model Steeler.

  • Ahmad

    I really think that Hood will put it all together this year. Its a contract year for him and yes worked on his physical game as well as his technical game. I think we all will be pleasantly surprised with him.

  • sgtrobo

    Heyward’s quite good in the (Rare) games this past season when he got more than a handful of snaps

  • walter mason

    It wasnt me the put the down arrow lol. The Steelers will not rebuild a Super Bowl team drafting average players no. 1.. Another thought, he may soon be the last remaining player from that years draft 1-8.

  • walter mason

    No. It would be less of an issue for me if he was drafted 5th or later.

  • sgtrobo

    well, to the team, his draft position doesn’t matter. To fans it does, especially when you spend (waste?) a 1st round draft pick on a player whose skill set doesn’t match what we do at that position. Drafting a penetrating defensive tackle in the first round to play as a 2-gap defensive end is like drafting a really quick running back in the first round to convert to a fullback. The very skillset that puts the player in the first round is the OPPOSITE of what we will be using him to do.

  • sgtrobo

    hope you’re right. Really like him as a dude but I can’t get behind his game thus far with the Steelers, just a bad fit for his talents