Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin noticed Ziggy Hood at the training facility early Tuesday -- the team's off day -- getting extra work. Without anyone saying a word, Hood knows the increased responsibility and big shoes he must fill this weekend against the reigning champion New Orleans Saints in his first career start.
Starting left defensive end Aaron Smith had triceps surgery on Monday and will be out for an extended period. Not only is Hood expected to replace him Sunday, but the former first-round pick likely will be the starter in Pittsburgh for the foreseeable future.
With just three tackles in six games this season, is Hood ready?
"He's not had the kind of production that he'd like thus far, but the season is still early," Tomlin said. "Boy, he's got a big-time opportunity to work on that this weekend. Knowing him, I know that he will do what’s necessary in the process."
With 22 games under his belt, Hood is not green by any means. Like a lot of young players in Pittsburgh, Hood has been slowly groomed for this moment.
The Steelers and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau run a complicated 3-4 scheme that takes time to learn. Current defensive stars Troy Polamalu, LaMarr Woodley, Lawrence Timmons and even Smith struggled or were non-factors as rookies. The same can be said for Hood, who played in all 16 games as a backup last year. He was in the rotation, spelling starters Smith and Brett Keisel, and recorded eight tackles and a sack.
Smith is not only Hood's predecessor, but he's also Hood's mentor. Smith often took time out of his schedule after practice and in training camp to work with Hood on technique. Their lockers are close and they talk strategy a lot in Pittsburgh's locker room and in meeting rooms.
Hood said he feels "awful" that Smith suffered another major injury -- his third in four years -- but said Smith remains "in good spirits." Hood wants to perform well Sunday not only for himself and the success of the team, but also for his mentor.
"When you lose a guy of high caliber like that it makes you want to work harder, because what he brings to the field, it's tough to replace," Hood told me this week. "I'm going to try to do my best and try to fill his shoes. But it may not be enough. That guy has so much experience that it's mind-boggling thinking about it. But I'm going to do everything I can in my power to make sure that I make him proud."
Many players make their biggest jump in the NFL in Year 2. Although Hood had a solid preseason, it has been difficult to gauge his progress with limited reps in the regular season.
We will know where Hood is in his development after this weekend. His snap count could triple against the Saints as a first-time starter, depending on the depth and availability of fellow starter Brett Keisel, who missed last week's game against Miami with a hamstring injury.
Backup Nick Eason replaced Keisel at right defensive end last week, because Hood has worked mostly as Smith's backup on the left side. Hood said he will be much more comfortable Sunday playing full time at left defensive end.
"If you practice for a long time on your left and try to switch over to your right, it's real fuzzy," Hood explained. "Your whole mechanics and how you view things is a little bit different. Not only are you switching calls and trying to pick up different signals, but your stance and alignment is different. So I'm going to try to learn as much as I can from both sides in case they need me for the long run."
Smith is one of the NFL's most underrated and consistent players. Pittsburgh's defense has suffered every time he has been unavailable because of injuries in recent years. But Hood was drafted last year in the first round to prevent that from happening again. The Steelers have rolled to a 5-1 start and hope Hood will be part of that continued success.
"We haven't seen it yet, but Hood has to be a better player than he was a year ago," said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. "Hood has ability, and defensive line coach John Mitchell is one of the best in the league. He's had a chance to bring him along, and Hood's been in the organization long enough to where there's no more excuses."
According to Tomlin, Hood doesn't have to be Aaron Smith. The Steelers have enough studs on defense capable of helping make up for the loss. Tomlin just doesn't want to see a noticeable dropoff in the NFL's fourth-ranked defense now that Hood is expected to be the long-term replacement.
"You know the philosophy we buy into in terms of the standard being the standard, and what we mean by that, quite frankly, is those who step in for [Smith] has to play winning football," Tomlin said. "There are no excuses... Do I expect the guys that take his place to play like Aaron, or make the similar kind of plays? Maybe not. But they better be above the line."