PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 24: Ziggy Hood #96 of the Pittsburgh Steelers tackles Kellen Clemens #10 of the St. Louis Rams during the game on December 24, 2011 at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The Steelers won 27-0. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
This is the fourth article in the series about players who will help define the 2012 season. The third, on CB Keenan Lewis, can be found here. The second, on RB Isaac Redman, resides here. The initial article, covering SS Troy Polamalu, is here.
Ziggy Hood was drafted in the first round in the 2009 draft, at number 32 overall. This is a tough place to draft, although it is, of course, infinitely preferable to number 31. The next player taken in the draft is a second-rounder, and generally the crème de la crème of a given position is already gone.
Not only was Hood taken at the end of the first round, he was the seventh defensive lineman drafted in 2009. (B. J. Raji and Peria Jerry also went in the first round. Hood, like Raji and Jerry, was listed as a DT in the draft, although he was considered an end prospect.) Tyson Jackson (#3,) Aaron Maybin (#11,) Brian Orakpo (#13,) and Larry English (#16) were also drafted ahead of Ziggy Hood. Of these DEs, only Orakpo went to a 4-3 defense, and Washington converted to a 3-4 in 2010.
During Hood's junior year at the University of Missouri (2007) he recorded 49 tackles, eight tackles-for-loss, three forced fumbles and five sacks, and was a solid and consistent player. Although his senior season wasn't as impressive, he had an excellent pro day, edging him into the first round.
Hood came to the Steelers as the heir apparent to Aaron Smith. The assumption was, Hood would learn at the feet of the master, gradually seeing more playing time, and would then move into the spot in the fullness of time. In his first year as a Steeler Hood showed considerable promise in spot duty, and won a lot of hearts when he recovered a fumble and registered a sack in the December 27 2009 game vs. the Ravens. That season he also had two passes defended, and hopes were high.
There seemed to be little sense of urgency about Hood's development until Smith sustained a triceps tear midway through the 2010 season. As a result Hood was the starter for nine games in the 2010 regular season and the three postseason games.
He played well in place of Aaron Smith, leading the defensive line with 18 QB pressures. He also had four sacks, including one of Joe Flacco in the Divisional Game. In St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Bernie Miklasz's article about Ziggy Hood prior to the 2011 Super Bowl, he asked a teammate about Ziggy. He got this response:
"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."
Hood's work ethic paid off when he was watching film prior to the AFC Championship game. As Miklasz details in his article:
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.
The 2011 season is where the evaluation of Ziggy Hood gets rather difficult. On paper it doesn't look particularly impressive. In 833 snaps he netted 1.5 sacks, about a quarter of the number he had the previous season, including the post-season. His tackle count went up, but his total tackles were substantially less than his junior season in college, and he has never forced a fumble in the NFL. The run defense generally suffered last season, and he has to take some of the blame.
But a very curious fact emerged as I dug a bit deeper. I was digging in the first place because I was seeing such widely divergent comments about Hood. The mystery only deepened as I looked at the way he was ranked by the Pro Football Reference guys and the Pro Football Focus guys. So I decided to compare him to the DEs in the first two rounds of 2009 and see how they had done in 2011.
Ten DEs were taken in rounds one and two. Two of them, David Veihune (2/52) and Cody Brown (2/63) didn't play in 2011, and appear to be out of the league. Two more, Larry English (1/16) and Everette Brown (2/43) played less than half the season, so I eliminated them. I then compared the remaining six, and here's what it looks like:
The players, from left to right, are Tyson Jackson, Aaron Maybin, Brian Orakpo, Ziggy Hood, Connor Barwin, and Paul Kruger, the order in which they were drafted. Obviously there is some disagreement between the two ranking systems. For instance, Connor Barwin was given the highest AV [Average Value] (8) for 2011 by PFR, but only a 1.0 by PFF. Compare this to Brian Orakpo, who received an AV of 7 from PFR and a stellar 23.2 from PFF.
These differences pale, though, when comparing Ziggy Hood's numbers. Pro Football Reference gave him a very respectable AV of 6, considerably better than the AV of 2 awarded to Aaron Maybin and Paul Kruger. I put in the players' Lifetime Career Average Value as well, for interest. We note Hood is number four out of six for 2011 and number three out of six for the sum of three years in the PFR rankings.
But when you look at the Pro Football Focus number for Ziggy Hood, not only is it a negative number, the only negative number among the six players, but spectacularly negative. In fact, PFF ranked Hood the worst 3-4 DE out of the 71 players in this category. On the same list, Brett Keisel received a ranking of 26.8, good for fifth overall. If the supposed experts vary so wildly in evaluating Ziggy Hood, I suppose it isn't too surprising to find a general lack of consensus elsewhere.
In the end, though, it doesn't much matter what others are saying about his playing. Here's what Ziggy Hood thinks of it, as reported by Mark Kaboly in last Friday's Tribune-Review,
Ziggy Hood spent the early part of this offseason watching every one of the 833 snaps he played last season.
For the most part, he didn't like what he saw.
Hood, the Steelers' 2009 first-round pick, realized he was slow off the ball, and it was too easy to knock him off his feet.
As he said in an interview on Steelers.com with Teresa Varley late last season, he felt he had become more consistent, but there was still a long way to go:
My biggest critic is really myself. When I look at myself and evaluate myself, I say 'I have to get better to make the team better.'
However one may care to rank his play during the 2011 season, this tells us something very important about Ziggy Hood—he takes his job seriously enough to study his defects. This is a difficult and painful thing to do, but necessary in any profession if one wishes to improve. And while some of this would have presumably been addressed by the coaching staff anyhow, it speaks volumes about his dedication for Hood to put himself through it on his own time.
Having decided his play wasn't satisfactory, Hood decided to do something about it. He told Kaboly he was also "feeling sluggish" and not "in tip-top shape" during last season. It was time for a change. He realized his offseason workouts in prior years hadn't really gotten the job done, and looked for something different.
Hood has always been known as a "workout warrior," dead-lifting a tremendous amount of weight. (In college he listed "lifting weights" as one of his hobbies, along with "fly fishing, which somehow seems like an oxymoron.) But as he watched the film he realized strength by itself wasn't enough. This wasn't really a new problem. One of his scouting reports prior to the 2009 draft noted he "won't wow scouts with his athleticism" and "only moderate initial quickness."
So he went to Outer Limit Athletic Performance in Valencia for a new approach. He has added 20 pounds of muscle while shedding 18 pounds of fat. As he told Kaboly,
"All that big and looking sloppy, that's out the window," Hood said. "We [defensive tackles] are sexy now."
He's been "wowing people with his athleticism" now on this YouTube video with his 50" box jump from a seated position. (The video was made in May.) As Neal Coolong commented in an earlier BTSC article, "Certainly, it's not a drill directly related to football, but that kind of power suggests ample amount of transferable physical prowess." It will be interesting this season to find out whether the new, sleeker look translates into new, quicker play.
Aaron Smith's departure left some rather large shoes to fill. A year ago this was an overwhelming thought for Hood. When Bernie Miklasz asked before the Super Bowl about how it felt to be replacing Smith, he 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."
This year he seems to have a new confidence. He was asked by Varley in the above-quoted Steelers.com interview, "As you step into the role [Smith] had, do you challenge yourself to live up to the standard he set at the position?" After a moment's hesitation, Hood replied:
It's kind of a tough question. I want to say I want to be like Big A, but I want to be better...If I can be better than him then I'll be doing my job. Then, I want the next guy after me to be better than me. So I want to be better, do this, do that, I want to improve. I want to make sure this defense is known for stopping the run, and, you know, bringing the pain out there every Sunday.
Steeler Nation had an extraordinary LDE in Aaron Smith, possibly a once-in-a-generation player. Only time will tell whether Hood can live up to his self-imposed goal of surpassing his mentor. But if he doesn't, it seems it won't be for lack of trying.