Heyward over Hood: It's about time

Justin K. Aller

Ziggy Hood simply hasn't made plays to this point in his career, and if nothing else, Heyward has showed some ability in that area. Moving Heyward into the starting left defensive end role is the right move for this team.

PITTSBURGH -- So, Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin has installed Cam Heyward as the starting left defensive end ahead of Ziggy Hood.

All I can say is it's about time. Hood's a nice guy and a hard worker, and he appears to be a good teammate. However, in his fifth NFL season since the Steelers made him a first round draft choice, Hood has underwhelmed, underperformed and underachieved.

Hood has three quarterback pressures and a pass breakup, but no sacks and no forced fumbles. While sacks are less important for defensive linemen in a three-four defense like the Steelers run, one would think Hood could force a fumble. However, in the last three-plus seasons with extensive playing time -- primarily as a starter for injured Aaron Smith, a serious playmaker -- Hood has zero forced fumbles.

Heyward doesn't have one, either, this season. But in less playing time, he has nine quarterback pressures and two pass breakups. His numbers should increase with an increase in playing time from here on. This is what Tomlin said Tuesday when asked if Heyward, the Steelers' No. 1 pick two years after Hood, passed him on the depth chart.

"He has, and he will play more and deservedly so,'' Tomlin said at his press conference Tuesday. "I think he's been really solid, not taking anything away from Ziggy. Obviously, both guys will continue to play. We just want Cam to play more than he's been playing and in order to ensure that, we're going to put him in the starting lineup.''

Tomlin tried to dress up Hood in those comments, but he did take something away from him. He took Hood's starting spot. His playing time could conceivably decrease considerably this season, the last in Hood's original contract. Heyward was drafted to eventually replace Brett Keisel, who actually appears to be getting better with age. Keisel has a sack and 13 quarterback pressures. He led the club with 40 pressures last season. Lawrence Timmons was second with 19, while Hood came in third with 17.

Hood signed a five-year, $8.7 million contract in 2009. The deal included $6.1 million guaranteed, while another $2.6 million was available through escalators. It's likely that he didn't hit too many of them. His base salary this season is $715,000. The Steelers might not want to pay him after his contract expires. Keisel also is in his final season with a base pay considerably higher at $2.825 million this season. Maybe, if Keisel takes just 1-2 seasons, he'll re-sign. Heyward signed for four seasons in 2011 at $6.705 million. The deal included a $3.376 million signing bonus and base salary at $984,548 this season. He is scheduled to make $1,289,322 next year and be a free agent in 2015.

Left defensive end obviously isn't the only position shakeup this week. Mike Adams was replaced at left offensive tackle. Kelvin Beachum could start this week, unless newcomer Levi Brown can pick up the offense sufficiently enough to earn the spot. Tomlin said Adams is still a viable option, but not now.

This is his second NFL season, and he hasn't played a full one yet due to injuries last year. The jury is still out on him. There also will be a change at the inside linebacker spot next to Lawrence Timmons, where rookie Vince Williams has surpassed Kion Wilson. Both will play, but Williams will start and get more playing time like he clearly did the past couple weeks.

Then, there's safety, where Shamarko Thomas reportedly will take more time from Ryan Clark at free safety. Thomas already has better coverage skills than Clark, and if he can tackle better he eventually could start there.

Don't be surprised if more changes are made as this season stumbles on for the Steelers, but that means the club's record might not change too much in the process. So, don't be surprised if wins remain difficult to secure until everybody settles in, especially in the trenches.

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