FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Ziggy Hood, defensive end of the future, your future is now.
The Steelers made Evander Hood the only defensive end they drafted in the first round in 21 years in 2009. They put him behind Aaron Smith on the left side with the idea he would learn from the best 3-4 end in their history, then assume the starting role when Smith retired.
Sunday, Smith was delivered a premature retirement notice at age 34 in Miami. Smith could fight back from yet another arm injury, this one a torn left triceps muscle, next season at age 35, but the time is now for Hood to step up and show why the Steelers drafted him.
The team has had no success drafting defensive ends in the first round. They include Aaron Jones (1988), Daryl Sims ('85), Gabe Rivera ('83) and Keith Gary ('81). Rivera was paralyzed in a car accident after a promising start to his rookie season.
Hood has a chance to become their only first-round defensive end to pay dividends, and the Steelers' defense needs that kind of help now more than ever.
It's a defense that is showing cracks after a strong start to this season. For the second consecutive week, they allowed a nondescript quarterback to light them up at times. Chad Henne, despite getting no production from his ground game, was able to complete 23 of 36 passes for 257 yards and a touchdown. They sacked him just once and did not get an interception.
The previous week, it was rookie Colt McCoy, Cleveland's third-round draft pick, who made his first NFL start and, in Heinz Field no less, was able to complete 23 of 33 passes for 281 yards and a touchdown.
Add to that a more reluctant defense too. Linebacker James Harrison admitted to pulling off making a tackle on one play in Miami because he had the NFL's crackdown on big hits in mind. Safety Troy Polamalu also looked as if he pulled back on a tackle in the game.
And the passing offenses of Henne and McCoy may be child's play compared to what they face on Halloween night in New Orleans, the defending Super Bowl champion. Despite the Saints' upset loss at home Sunday to the Browns, they boast the NFL's fifth-best pass offense behind Drew Brees, averaging 279.3 yards per game.
The Steelers' pass defense has slipped to 24th in the league, allowing 235.7 yards per game, and they also could be without Pro Bowl linebacker LaMarr Woodley, who left the game in Miami with a hamstring injury, and starting right defensive end Brett Keisel, who missed the game in Miami with a hamstring injury. It's possible rookie Jason Worilds would make his first start, for Woodley, against the Saints and Nick Eason for Keisel again.
"What are you going to do, quit?" asked Eason, who started for Keisel against the Dolphins. "How are you going to quit? We just have to go out and play, man.
"We hate to see guys get hurt but we just have to go out and continue to play, do what we do, nobody try to put Superman on your chest. Just go out, play your techniques. Coaches are going to put us in good defensive positions to make plays, and just make the plays that come to us."
That defense has done its best job against the run, as usual. They lead the NFL by allowing only 63.7 yards rushing per game and they've done it against some good running teams, including the Miami Dolphins, who managed just 64 yards on 21 tries Sunday.
"The standard is the standard, that's how we always approach everything," linebacker James Farrior said about having players such as Hood and Worilds to fill in the gaps for the injured starters. "We just have to have guys step up and the rest of us have to rally around them."
But Brees and the Saints aren't bashful about what they like to do on offense, especially indoors at home on their carpet.
And the way the Steelers have been running the ball the past two games, they might have to respond by winding up Ben Roethlisberger's arm as if it's 2009 again. They managed only 58 yards in Miami, and Rashard Mendenhall, after a four-game start in which he averaged 103 yards per game and a 4.6-yard average per carry, has only 121 yards in the past two games with a 2.9-yard average per carry.
"I feel we can have a better run game than that," Mendenhall said Sunday.
They will need it, to at least help give their ailing defense a rest.