Ziggy Hood was so good, and so ready, we reported, that all he needed was a break, because, after all, he was playing behind the best 3-4 defensive linemen in the world.
But when Ziggy got that break last Sunday, when starting right defensive end Brett Keisel left the game with a hamstring injury, Ziggy remained on the sideline, only to be used on passing downs.
Instead of last year's first-round draft pick, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin turned to Nick Eason, and said Eason was the frontrunner to replace Keisel this week in Miami.
So, what happened to all of Ziggy's progress?
Well, Hood on Thursday admitted to something Tomlin hadn't: He's playing with a high right ankle sprain, has been since late in the Tampa Bay game – not that he was complaining or missing any practice. "He's exhibiting good toughness, which we expect," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
That's all Hood can provide at this point, but the raves from training camp were supported by LeBeau, who said: "I think that Ziggy's making great progress. … I think he's going to end up being a major contributor for us this year, and I think he's right on schedule to becoming a good NFL defensive lineman."
"He's not the healthiest Ziggy Hood he can be," said Eason, the 30-year-old veteran who'll start for Keisel on Sunday. "On top of that, in this defense, a 3-4 defense, we're paid to play within the framework of that defense. He's done that this year. He's made the plays that he's expected to make."
Eason was only trying to say that 3-4 defensive ends in the Steelers' scheme usually don't have much in the way of highlight resume reels. "Sometimes these guys, these first-round draft picks, are expected to have these big numbers," Eason said. "But Ziggy is a very unselfish player. He plays within the framework of this defense. He's going to be a great player here for a l-o-o-o-ng time. The main thing is to get him healthy right now, but he's coming along. He's come a long ways from last year. He has a better understanding of the defense and how he's expected to help this team. He's a great, great character guy, a great family guy, and we all love him."
Well, Ziggy, how about the progress question?
"Oh, a whole lot," he said. "I mean, I just see a lot when I watch film – my steps are a lot better, my leverage, staying low, and really shooting my hands on a guy to control him. Last year, it was kind of tough on me because I'm used to attack D. This year I'm holding point and coming off and making more plays."
A college football fan, Hood watched Wisconsin upset No. 1 Ohio State because the massive Wisconsin offensive line overran Ohio State's defensive line and engulfed its linebackers. Hood felt bad for a talented end such as Cameron Heyward, who struggled with the 3-4 techniques.
"It's kind of hard because when you're playing your true technique, a lot of 3-4 defensive ends are not going to make too many plays," Hood said. "But as long as you do your job and do it well, everybody else is going to get the recognition. Look at Aaron Smith for example. He's not known as a guy who makes a lot of big plays, and when he does, you say, ‘Wow, where did that come from?' But if you look at him, (Casey) Hamp(ton), Keis, if the D-line ain't playing well, the defense as a whole won't work."
Yep, he's catching on fast.