On the Steelers: A make-or-break year for Ziggy Hood?

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The Steelers will pack up and leave Saint Vincent College for good today, completing that portion of training camp without trying to negotiate a contract extension with any of their players.

And that means they remain unsure about what they have in Ziggy Hood, their starting left defensive end and a first-round draft pick, even as he heads into his fifth season.

Is Hood, 26, worth keeping around longer? Must they see how he performs in 2013 before making a move after the season? Or are they willing to let his contract expire and seek his fortune elsewhere next year?

"I'm not worried about the contract or anything like that," Hood said. "Because if I do what I'm capable of doing, everything will work out. If I'm worried about it, then I'm not focusing on what I have to do and that's to help this team win."

Hood started every game last season for the NFL's No. 1 overall defense that finished No. 2 against the run. He started 15 games, including a playoff game, for the NFL's No. 1 defense in 2011. He started more than half of the 2010 season for the NFL's No. 1 rushing defense, No. 2 overall.

He must be doing something right, because his coaches keep playing him and the defense keeps excelling. Yet, others do not see it that way. Some, including profootballfocus.com, believe he has been a weak link.

This was included in the evaluation of the Steelers this summer by the website:

"What on earth is going on with Ziggy Hood? If there was no one else to turn to, you may understand the Steelers reluctance to bench him, but Cameron Heyward looks like he has the ability to be a high quality end. At least his run defense was a little better down the stretch, but this looks almost like a team hoping a clear first-round bust can be disguised by playing time."

Hood said he knows nothing about PFF, nor anyone else who thinks he has not played well.

"Any first-round pick is always going to have a microscope on him, whether a wide receiver, a defensive back or an offensive or defensive lineman. You're always going to be the guy they look at extra hard," Hood said.

"I couldn't care less what people think. Until they can put their hands in the dirt and go against me, it's kind of hard to judge another man, especially at that position. I'm getting positive feedback from my coach, [that] is what I need to worry about."

Defensive ends in a 3-4 defense do not get many chances to accumulate statistics. Hood had two fumble recoveries last season to bring him to three in his career. He has never been credited with a forced fumble. He had three sacks last season and 42 tackles. He was third on the team with 17 quarterback pressures but Brett Keisel, the starting right end, ran away with the lead with 40.

There might be more opportunities for sacks because defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has asked his ends to get on the edge a little more to rush the quarterback.

"I think it shows some degree of success out there," Hood said of the change. "Opportunities are going to present themselves."

Not only was Hood 32nd among the NFL's first-round draft picks after the Steelers won the Super Bowl in 2009, he ultimately replaced Aaron Smith, who was considered their best end since they switched to a 3-4 in 1982. Hood had to try to live up to high expectations and fill some big shoes.

"What do I think? I think I've gotten better over the past four years," said Hood, who added he should improve again this year.

"Definitely I took great strides in this training camp. This season I have a lot of things to show, a lot of things to do out there. Lord willing and I stay healthy, the sky's the limit."

Wheaton catching on

"Just catching the ball, that's first and foremost. If you don't catch the ball, there is so much that can go wrong."

Pirates outfielder Starling Marte describing a can of corn fly ball hit to left field in St. Louis? Nope, that's Steelers rookie Markus Wheaton explaining the most important job of a punt returner.

Monday against the Redskins, Wheaton will get to show off those skills for the first time in a preseason game, according to coach Mike Tomlin. Wheaton has been impressive in his first pro training camp and some of the Steelers' better receivers also were Pro Bowl punt returners -- Lynn Swann, Louis Lipps and Antonio Brown among them.

"Like they say, the more you can do, the more valuable you are, no matter where it is," said Wheaton, a third-round draft choice from Oregon State. "Wherever I get the opportunity, I would love to take advantage of it."

Brown professes to be ready, willing and able to do anything his coaches ask of him, even if it is returning punts again. But Brown, in his second season as a starting receiver, has to feel the way some of his coaches do, that it would be nice if one of his teammates showed enough proficiency there to take over.

Teams now put much more emphasis on returning punts than they do kickoffs because not many kicks are returned anymore. Nevertheless, veteran return man LaRod Stephens-Howling will go back to return kickoffs Monday, Tomlin said.

"I think it's an exciting play, it adds a dimension to the game," Brown said of the punt return. "Punt return will be a key position in football, with field position."

Quick hits

• Tomlin gave away no plans as to what running backs he will use Monday in Washington other than to say that all the healthy ones will play. It remains to be seen whether he will play the two who were injured in practice Thursday, rookie Le'Veon Bell (knee) and Isaac Redman (stinger). Bell went through practice Saturday while Redman was limited.

• Tomlin said the first teams will play longer Monday than they did in the first game against the New York Giants.

• The Steelers went through their final practice at Saint Vincent Saturday afternoon without pads.

• Cornerback Cortez Allen returned to practice the past few days and showed some good moves Saturday, including one where he intercepted a pass. He had minor knee surgery two weeks ago.

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For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published August 18, 2013 4:00 AM


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