PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger once stepped in as a young man to fill a critical role for a championship contender, so he was asked if he had any advice for Ziggy Hood.
“Don’t try to be Aaron Smith,” said the Steelers’ quarterback. “Just be you. Be the best that you can be.”
Of course, that’s not what Steelers fans want from Hood. They want Smith, but what they’ll get is a second-year player with a bright future whose initial opportunity as a starter could last throughout the remainder of the season.
Smith, the Steelers’ left defensive end, suffered a partial tear of his left triceps tendon Sunday and will miss an indefinite period of time. It’s the third time in the last four seasons that Smith has suffered a serious injury, and if history is any indication the Steelers’ run defense will become vulnerable.
“He’s definitely our best run-stopper,” said James Farrior, who plays the linebacker spot right behind the LDE. “He’s one guy that you never have to worry about being in the wrong position. He’s one guy you never have to worry about the assignment. It seems like he plays perfect every snap and I don’t know if you can duplicate that.”
If it’s any consolation, the Steelers seemed less vulnerable when Smith went out in 2009 than they were in 2007.
Smith missed five regular-season games and the playoff game in 2007 and the Steelers allowed 4.9 yards per carry in those games. They allowed only 3.4 ypc. with him.
In 2009, Smith only played in five games. The breakdown was 3.9 ypc. without him; 3.7 ypc. with him.
His replacements last year were veterans Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason. This year it’s Hood, the former first-round pick whose time has come in his second season.
“This should be his time,” Farrior said. “He should be ready to roll. He’s been in the system a couple years now. He knows what to do.”
It’s perfect timing for Hood, who’s just starting to feel better after suffering a high ankle sprain a little over a month ago at Tampa Bay.
“I’m at 95 (percent), close to 100,” Hood said. “I was moving a whole lot better in Miami. The previous games, not too much. I think that’s one of the reasons I didn’t play much, which I understand – you don’t want to put a hurt guy out there and maybe hurt the team. But I’m feeling pretty good right now.”
As a rookie, Hood struggled with the new 3-4 techniques, but of his seven tackles, two occurred in the penultimate game of the season, against Baltimore, in which he recorded his only sack and also recovered a fumble.
This year, Smith was credited with a QB pressure and a QB hurry in the opener, had another pressure in the second game, and broke up a pass and made two tackles at Tampa Bay. After seeing minimal action against Baltimore and Cleveland, Hood rebounded with an extended and serviceable game last Sunday against Miami.
Is he ready for full-time duty as the starter?
“I think so,” he said. “I think I had a great teacher in front of me. I think he’s going to be there regardless of what happens. If I need someone to fall back on and talk to, he’ll be right there.”
Hood summed up the situation with what seemed to be a mix of what Farrior and Roethlisberger had to say.
“Time to grow up and be a better player,” Hood said. “Aaron did it for years. I won’t be able to do the same job he did, because he’s Aaron Smith and he’s a great player, but if I can do at least half of what he does, I’ll feel I’m doing my job.”
NOTES – Along with Smith, Flozell Adams, Brett Keisel and LaMarr Woodley missed Wednesday’s practice, but the practices on Thursday and Friday are more important for game duty. Adams, for one, is expected to return to the lineup Sunday night in New Orleans. ... Emmanuel Sanders overcame his fumble on the opening kickoff to win AFC Special Teams Player of the Week due to subsequent returns of 37 and 48 yards. The latter return set up the game-winning field goal. “It’s all about one snap and clear, and moving on to the next play,” said Sanders. “I knew if I would’ve let that fumble hinder me the whole game, then I would’ve probably just messed up even more.”