Feed the Beast

If Sunday night was any indication, Steelers defensive end Ziggy Hood is on the cusp of a breakout season. He's too shy to boast in that regard, but his teammates aren't.

Pittsburgh – Ziggy Hood will tell you all about his hometown and his family and his friends and how he went from 24 percent to 18 percent body fat this offseason and still managed to gain two pounds.

He'll tell you all of that and more, but he will not tell you he played a good game Sunday night against the Indianapolis Colts.

But he did.

The Steelers' third-year pro, the former first-round pick, the defensive end who's replaced Aaron Smith, played an exceptional game.

But he won't admit it.

"I did OK," said Hood.

OK? Hood looked like a different person out there and not the guy who aroused suspicions last season that he was turning into a bust.

Just OK? Hood was a beast out there.

"There were a couple things I did wrong," Hood said.

Like what?

"Well, I missed a key tackle that sprung a 21-yard run," he said.

The run through the open hole that a linebacker should have filled?

"No, it was my fault," Hood said. "I take full responsibility for that. I had him lined up, but he just outran me."

That's Hood. Nothing's ever good enough for him. Not that last year should've been considered good enough for him. After all, it was fairly uninspiring. He led the Steelers' defensive linemen in snaps (879) and nothing else, other than assisted tackles (9). His 36 total tackles were a jump over his 20 from the previous season, but last year he had only 1½ sacks, 2 passes defensed, and no forced fumbles or fumble recoveries. So Hood took a good look at his tape, a good look in the mirror, and went to work.

His weight room tales are now legendary among teammates. So, too, could be his play on the field, if Sunday night was any indication.

"Ziggy's had a great camp," said the Steelers' other defensive end Brett Keisel. "I think he's taken it to that next level, which we need him to. Just like you said, he had a really good game. He was getting great pressure on the quarterback when he wasn't hitting him. We expect Ziggy to make a lot of plays this year for us. He's the guy."

Hood made 3 tackles in less than a half of action Sunday night, but more impressive than the stats was his ferocity. The Colts often double-teamed him because his strength and stamina and quickness were obvious. That was rarely the case a year ago.

"I think it just comes with being in the system another year, having another year's experience," Keisel said. "When you're a young player, even in your third year or so, you're still not totally there. At least that's how it was for me. For me it wasn't until my fifth or sixth year when I really felt like I was fluid and doing all the things I was supposed to be doing, where it felt like my game was getting better and better. So that's where he is. Each year he needs to get better, just like any of us."

This is Hood's fourth year, so Keisel's timeline for him is just about right. But there has to be more to it than growth within the system. Perhaps it's Hood's new body?

"It's a combination of both," Hood said. "You know what you have to work on, plus you can focus on what you need to do to develop technique-wise. The first year you knew you had to be strong, be stout at the point of attack. You had to put more time in the weight room and you had to work your steps and stuff like that. This year I was able to focus on my diet, and I also had to develop more foot speed and more hand speed, simple things like that that help me become a better player.

"I feel more comfortable," he said, "but I've got a long ways to go before I can ever reach my full potential."

In that regard, Hood sounded like Aaron Smith. Even into Smith's final years he refused to become satisfied.

"No," Hood said. "When you stop improving that means it's time for you to leave the game."

Judging by the way Hood played Sunday night, that's a long way from happening.

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