Confidence on the line
By F. Dale Lolley, Staff writer firstname.lastname@example.org
PITTSBURGH - The numbers weren't overwhelming, but there is no doubt 2011 was a big year for Steelers defensive linemen Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward.
A 2009 first-round draft pick of the Steelers, Hood made 14 starts at defensive end because of injuries to Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith. Last year's top draft pick, Heyward, became the primary backup at defensive end for the same reason.
Both should reap the benefits of their playing time this season.
"I think I learned a lot from the playbook. I learned a lot more about my position," Heyward said as the Steelers continued their three-day mini-camp Wednesday at their practice facility on Pittsburgh's South Side.
"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 had 31 tackles and 1.5 sacks last season, and Heyward contributed 11 tackles and a sack.
Smith had 70 tackles in 2002, his most productive season. His career high for sacks was eight, a number he reached in 2001 and 2004.
Smith's play also was long considered the standard by which 3-4 defensive ends were measured. Injuries, however, limited his play in the past three seasons and finally forced his retirement after 13 seasons.
Hood has lowered his body fat from 24 percent to 18 percent. He now packs 307 pounds on his 6-3 frame and looks as if he were chiseled from a block of granite.
"My wife and I made a commitment to each other to eat better and take better care of our bodies," Hood said. "We wanted to eat healthy as a family thing. It all started with our second son being born. I got ahold of the right people to help me excel in that area."
It's part of Hood's commitment to help replace Smith's quiet leadership on the defensive line.
Keisel and nose tackle Casey Hampton will still be the most vocal people in the Steelers' defensive line meetings, but Hood feels he can bring something to that as well.
"That's leadership that's not here," Hood said. "It's something you could fall back on, something you might see differently from him. He could coach you and make you a better player.
"My strength is leading by example. I'm not a vocal guy. I let Keisel and Hamp do that. I'll lead by playing hard. Hopefully, some guys will follow that and push harder."
Either Hood or Heyward will win the starting job opposite Keisel, but both figure to play a lot in the Steelers' defensive line rotation.
Heyward's head was swimming just trying to learn the playbook at this point last season. Now, however, he feels much more prepared to compete and let his play on the field speak for itself.
"I think once training camp rolls around, I'll better be able to evaluate what I'm doing," Heyward said. "I'm just out here trying to get better with my technique. There's not a lot of physicalness right now. I definitely feel more confident and better to play my position on the field."