Steelers’ Hood rides to the rescue on defensive line

by Gerry Dulac | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

ARLINGTON, Texas — In what only can be classified as a Super Bowl statistical anomaly, 66 percent of the Steelers defensive line is from the state of Texas. That is also the percentage of games Ziggy Hood, one of those Lone Star state natives, has started for injured Aaron Smith this season.

And Hood will get one more start at defensive end Sunday in the biggest game of his young life, replacing Smith in Super Bowl XLV against the Green Bay Packers. It will be the 13th consecutive game Hood has started for Smith, a 12-year veteran who has not played or practiced since he tore the triceps tendon in his left arm in Week 6.

Smith and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey will not play against the Packers, despite weeklong optimism by coach Mike Tomlin that indicated each player had a chance to be in uniform.

Hood, a No. 1 draft choice in 2009, is the only starter on defense who hasn’t won a Super Bowl ring.

“I definitely wanted him to play, but, you know, it’s a tough deal,” said five-time Pro Bowl nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is from Galveston, Texas, about Smith. “Ziggy’s done a great job, and I expect him to keep on doing the same. Aaron’s a great player, but we’ve been doing it the whole year without him. Ziggy’s been getting it done. Hopefully, he’ll do the same thing.”

Hood was born and raised in Amarillo, Texas, approximately 350 miles from Cowboys Stadium where Super Bowl XLV will be staged. After a rookie season in which he dressed for all 16 games but rarely played, his development since Smith was injured has been one of the surprises of the season.

Hood tied end Brett Keisel for the most sacks (three) among defensive linemen in the regular season and added another in the postseason — a big third-down sack on Baltimore’s Joe Flacco on the Ravens final possession. But, more important, Hood has been an integral part of a rush defense that ranked No. 1 in the league and a set a franchise record for fewest yards allowed in any season (1,004), even a 12-game season.

But the Steelers have been even stingier in the postseason, allowing the Ravens and New York Jets to rush for a combined 105 yards in two games, an average of 52.5 yards — 10 yards below their league-leading average (62.8) in the regular season.

“He’s gotten better,” Hampton said. “He’s a first-round pick, so you expect him to improve and get better. With Aaron going down, he’s stepped up and he’s played big for us.”

So well that the Steelers will have a pleasant problem facing them in 2011 — what to do with Hood, their strongest and most athletic defensive lineman, when Smith returns for his 13th season?

Hood seems to be a good fit for the Steelers, especially considering his background.

Since 1969, when Chuck Noll made Joe Greene of North Texas State the team’s No. 1 choice, the Steelers have drafted seven defensive linemen on the first round. Four of those have been Texas natives — Greene, Gabe Rivera, Hampton and Hood.

Hood came in the least acclaimed, probably because he was drafted two months after the Steelers’ sixth Super Bowl victory. But he is well aware of the legacy he is hoping to follow.

“You’ve heard of the Steel Curtain and Mean Joe Greene, everybody that has played there before,” Hood said. “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.”

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