Bernie Bytes: Checking in with Ziggy Hood

by Bernie Miklasz | stltoday.com

DALLAS — Former Mizzou defensive end Evander “Ziggy” Hood is at the Super Bowl for the first time, and his reaction is about what you’d expect.

“Right now it’s like a dream come true,” Hood said. “It’s still somewhat surreal until we step out onto the field. We got the pads on and emotions are flying high.”

Hood is one of the best stories of Pittsburgh’s season.

And MU fans should be proud of him.

The Steelers lost one of their key players on defense, left end Aaron Smith, to a triceps injury in Week Seven. Hood took over an important position. He had to make up for the loss of a 12-year veteran that’s been called the Steelers’ best DE since the “Steel Curtain” days in the 1970s. Yes, Smith is that respected. And Hood was so inexperienced, no one knew what to expect from him. It was an anxious time in Steeltown.

Well, no worries. Hood has been very impressive. Not that the Steelers are shocked by this; after all they made Hood their No. 1 draft pick in 2009 (the final choice of Round 1) after Hood completed an outstanding career at Missouri. But there are very high standards for the defense in Pittsburgh, and Hood had to prove that he could replace Smith and maintain the standard of play.

And he has. Including the postseason, Hood has started 11 of the last 12 games. He led the Steelers’ defensive line with 18 QB pressures. He’s had four sacks including one of Baltimore’s Joe Flacco in the first round of the AFC playoffs. The Steelers have actually allowed slightly fewer yards rushing per game with Hood in the lineup. And his job, primarily, is to play the four-or-five technique and stop the run. The Steelers finished as the league’s No. 1 defense, allowing only 15 points per game.

Hood had seven tackles and two assists in the two postseason wins that put the Steelers into Sunday’s Super Bowl vs. Green Bay.

Hood also made a major contribution in the AFC Championship Game. In studying video in the days before the game, Hood noticed how a Jets’ offensive tackle changed his stance based on the type of play being called — run or pass. So when the OT unknowingly tipped off that a pass was coming, Hood alerted his teammates. That inside knowledge led to Steelers OLB LaMarr Woodley batting down a pass in an important goal-line stand late in the game.

“It’s not easy stepping in and filling Aaron Smith’s shoes,” Steelers DE Brett Keisel said. “But the kid has done everything he’s been asked to do. He’s worked, he’s studied hard and he has his chance to win his first Super Bowl, which is awesome.”

When asked about the pressure of replacing Smith, Hood said: “When you get compared to somebody like that, you’re like a fly next to a mammoth,” Hood said. “At first it was kind of scary because it was a new role for me, as a starter.”

For the most part, Hood maintains a low-key profile. That’s the way it’s done in Pittsburgh. Young players keep their mouth shut until they earn playing time and respect. But Hood still has the same level of exuberance and confidence that he displayed as one of the established team leaders at Mizzou.

And early into his first NFL start — Oct. 31 at New Orleans — Hood knew he belonged. “I was going out there and holding down the blocks and fulfilling my assignments,” he said. “I had a lot of pressure on me. But once I got going I knew I was capable of doing it for a long time. I understand that I have a long way to go.”

Aaron Smith hopes to play Sunday. That’s extremely doubtful, but in some respects it doesn’t matter. In Pittsburgh, they’re no longer freaking out over Smith’s absence. And even the veteran knows the Steelers will be just fine with Hood in there. “A great young man,” Smith said. “He wants to learn, he wants to be good. You can tell because he listens.”

Hood obsesses over his technique in the Steelers’ 3-4 defense. Compared to what he did at MU, he’s playing a different style of defense, and at a new position. So this was not an easy transition. Hood is determined to uphold the Steelers’ tradition of playing rugged, intimidating defense. He doesn’t want to mess up assignments or be a liability.

“As soon as you get there,” Hood said, “You hear of the Steel Curtain and Mean Joe Greene, and everybody that has played there before. You’re walking into a team that prides themselves on defense and Pittsburgh is a blue collar city, so everybody comes to work. I feel like my work ethic is good enough, so when I come in, I just feel right comfortable.”

Sunday, Hood will become the latest Missouri football alum to play in the Super Bowl. The others: LB Andy Russell (Steelers), CB Eric Wright (49ers), LB Mike Jones (Rams) and CB Otis Smith (Patriots). MU quarterback Chase Daniel was a member of the 2009 New Orleans Saints team that won the Super Bowl, But he was the No. 3 quarterback and did not play. I failed to recognize some other MU/Super Bowl guys, and reader Brian Roche kindly filled me in — and I thank him for it. Here were the other Tigers in the Super Bowl: LB Bud Abell (Chiefs), LB Gus Otto (Raiders), DB Henry Stuckey (Dolphins), RB Tony Galbreath (Giants), DE Jerome Sally (Giants.)

Hood played in four bowl games as a Tiger, including the 2007 Cotton Bowl vs. Arkansas. And his final game with Mizzou was the 2008 Alamo Bowl vs. Northwestern.

That was nice. But Sunday, he’ll compete in the biggest football game in America … heck, the world.

“I played big games back in Missouri,” Hood said. “And this is the biggest game of my life right now. I’m okay. I’m ready for it. I feel like I’m prepared.”

Hood said he’ll playing to honor a lot of people on Sunday.

“I’m representing the Steelers and their winning tradition, I’m representing my family, I’m representing my hometown (Amarillo, Tx), I’m representing Missouri,” Hood said. “And most importantly, I’m representing myself.”

Hood said he also wants to win for MU head coach Gary Pinkel and all of the coaches that helped him during his days in Columbia.

“Just having that behind me makes me want to work hard and go out there and play even better and win. Not only win that for you, but win that for them as well,” he said.

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