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.