The Steelers saw the future of their defensive line last season when Aaron Smith was injured, and they liked what they saw. Ziggy Hood played so well in Smith's absence that the former No. 1 pick almost certainly will be like a fourth starter in their three-man line in 2011.
"Ziggy is just like a starter," said defensive line coach John Mitchell. "He's going to play quite a bit."
Hood's rapid emergence in his second season, when he started 13 games and had sacks in four of the final five games, is part of building the defensive line for the future.
Now the Steelers have launched phase two with rookie defensive end Cameron Heyward, their No. 1 pick from Ohio State. He will be used much in the same manner as when Hood was a rookie in 2009 -- getting four or five snaps a game to get him acclimated to Dick LeBeau's defense and accustomed to the pace of the NFL.
If he can progress at the same rate as Hood, or faster, the Steelers will consider their future restructuring right on schedule.
"He's a hard worker," Mitchell said of Heyward, drafted with the 31st overall pick. "What he's realizing now is, he might have been in shape to play at Ohio State, but he's not in shape to play in the NFL. There's a big difference. That slowed him down for the first couple days, but he's getting in better shape. You can see some of the quickness he has. And he's learning how to play with strength."
Like all rookies who couldn't go through an offseason program because of the lockout, Heyward is getting a crash course on playing defensive end with the Steelers -- an intricate role that requires a disciplined style to engage, read and get rid of the blocker.
Heyward is in the process of trying to combine that with his natural athletic ability, which has jumped out at the coaches on the practice field at training camp at Saint Vincent College. They are eager to get a better look at his talent and what he has learned when the Steelers begin their preseason Friday night in Landover, Md., against the Washington Redskins.
"I'm just trying to grasp this playbook now and take it one step at a time," said Heyward, son of the late former Pitt running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward who lived up in Monroeville until he was 8. "The toughest thing is just understanding the pace of everything on the field. The plays, I think, I can learn. But it's just trying to get it all in.
"That's part of game, I get to learn from guys like Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith and these guys who have played in adverse situations. It's helping me because they're relating everything to me and it makes it easier on me."
Hood, the team's strongest lineman, went through a similar process after he was drafted with the 32nd overall pick in 2009.
He saw spot duty as a rookie, appearing in all 16 games and making seven tackles. But, after a high ankle sprain bothered him for the first six games of the '10 season, Hood became an instant starter -- and an instant hit -- when Smith had his season ended by a torn triceps tendon.
The Steelers, who led the league in rushing defense with the third-lowest total since the advent of the 16-game season (62.8), never missed a beat.
"At the beginning of the season, it was kind of rocky because I was in and out, in and out," said Hood, who reported to this camp at 312 pounds. "When I played more with Aaron out, I got better and better and better. Finally, when I got fully healthy, I was able to do what I was capable of doing."
"What he did was amazing," Smith said. "To come in and not lose a beat, to play like that, he really did well. I can't say enough about him."
That earned Hood a battlefield promotion this season. He will be used more frequently as part of a four-man rotation, allowing the Steelers to use him to spot Smith, who is 35 and in his 13th season.
"The thing we're going to be able to do is rest Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel," Mitchell said. "Ziggy might get some on both sides. It all depends how Cam Heyward comes along. He's gotten better in this camp. He's getting better every day."
And so is the future of the defensive line.
"... I get to learn from guys like Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith and these guys who have played in adverse situations. It's helping me because they're relating everything to me and it makes it easier on me."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter: @gerrydulac. First Published August 10, 2011 4:00 AM