Fourth & Goal:

Could Ziggy Hood become a silver lining in the Aaron Smith saga? Mike Prisuta points out that rookies have come through in the not-so-distant past.

The last time the Steelers suffered an early-season injury this potentially catastrophic, one with the same type of the-season's-over connotations for those lacking in faith and perspective, they were forced to play Ben Roethlisberger at quarterback.

That worked out, didn't it?

It can again minus Aaron Smith.

The Steelers had Roethlisberger on the roster if not quite at the ready in September of 2004. Guard Alan Faneca was asked then if, given all the hype and potential, he was "excited" to see Roethlisberger get his chance.

Big Red let it be known he was neither excited nor amused, either by the Steelers losing Tommy Maddox or about such a question even being asked.

It's the same with Smith.

He's accurately perceived as a living legend on the field, in the locker room and throughout Steeler Nation. If not irreplaceable, Smith is at least John Wayne.

But Smith's departure to IR means this year's No. 1 pick, Ziggy Hood, will get more significant snaps. And that's exciting if not advantageous for the Steelers.

Hood need not be this year's Roethlisberger. The Steelers will start with Travis Kirschke in Smith's position, and Kirschke is much more up to speed regarding the nuances required to fill in there than he was at the conclusion of 2007. Kirschke has been honing his skills as a back-up to Smith ever since and is better prepared to replace him this time.

And there's a second veteran in Nick Eason upon which to lean.

But in Hood the Steelers also have available a player they envisioned starting and contributing mightily at some point, one as ready as he could be given the circumstances.

Hood spent his summer at the Steelers' practice facility studying the defense. He made his first splash at training camp during the run test, when he impressed veteran observers with an obvious desire to lead his group -- an uncommon trait among rookies.

Hood established early on that he knows how to use his hands, the critical component involved in making the transition to end in a 3-4, and that he was capable of holding the point of attack. And he's worked diligently after practices in individual sessions presided over by Smith.

"Everything for me, from my stance to get-off to shedding blocks I learned from him," Hood said. "I try to mimic my game to his."

So it could be worse.

The hard part for Hood will be recognizing his responsibility on a call that's made when the offense is arriving at the line of scrimmage, and being able to adjust and execute his technique flawlessly when that call is inevitably changed just prior to the snap.

The Steelers don't ask their ends to do a great deal, but what's required of them has to be done right every time. That's a lot to expect from Hood at this juncture of his career.

Still, it's at least plausible that being thrown in for extended, high-pressure stretches might accelerate his development.

"I still have that rookie mentality of thinking too much," Hood said. "But I think when I do get the opportunity to play everything's going to come together."

We'll begin finding out on Sunday.


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