On the Steelers: Hood likely will keep No. 1 picks' streak intact

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It looks as if Ziggy Hood will dress for the game tomorrow night against Tennessee, keeping yet another long Pittsburgh pro sports streak alive.

This one also goes back to the 1990s, back to 1996 when Steelers first-round draft choice Jamain Stephens did not dress for the opening game of the season. Since then, all 12 first-round picks have played in the opener, and it appears Hood will make it 13.

The Steelers rarely, if ever, dress seven defensive linemen for games. The other six are veterans, and it now appears Nick Eason will be the odd-man out.

Hood, the second-youngest player on the squad, has stayed almost exclusively at left defensive end this summer, so he likely will get some snaps against Tennessee in relief of Aaron Smith.

"I'm just sitting there waiting," said Hood, who plays on no first special teams. "If the coaches feel that it's time for me to step in, I'll be ready."

So, too, will the team's oldest player, Travis Kirschke. He'll spot Brett Keisel at right defensive end.

Kirschke turned 35 Sunday, four months to the day before linebacker James Farrior hits 35. Kirschke is among the many former Detroit Lions who have helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls. There were so many ex-Lions on the team in 2005 that they took their own team photo in Detroit at Super Bowl XL.

They added yet another this season in wide receiver Shaun McDonald.

Kirschke had his best season with the Steelers at age 34 after solving back problems that nearly ended his career in 2007. He played every game, and his 42 tackles were the most of his five seasons here.

"I'll tell you what, it's nice going through a season healthy," Kirschke said. "How much more fun you have playing this game when you feel good."

The presence of Kirschke and Eason prompted the Steelers to waive promising young end Sonny Harris. They wanted to get him on the practice squad, but the Carolina Panthers spoiled that plan. Yet, keeping Kirschke and Eason, 29, shows their priority is to win now over stashing a young player for later.

Fox to start

Keyaron Fox will start at the mack inside linebacker position tomorrow for injured Lawrence Timmons, who again did not practice yesterday because of a high ankle sprain.

It will be Fox's first start in his second season with the Steelers and just the fifth in his sixth season in the NFL. He played his first four seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs, who drafted him in the third round from Georgia Tech in 2004.

So, Fox will make his first start at inside linebacker before Timmons, the Steelers' 2007 first-round pick. Fox moved up this season after Larry Foote asked for and received his release. Arnold Harrison, a backup on the inside and outside, would be next in line.

James Farrior again will start at the buck inside linebacker spot next to Fox.

"It's a good feeling," Fox said of his first start. "I've been practicing all offseason trying to learn both the buck and the mack position, mainly the buck. But, at the last minute, Timmons went down so it was pretty much learning a new position on the fly."

Hartwig gets extension

Center Justin Hartwig signed a contract extension two days before the deadline. He gets four years, $10 million, including a $2.1 million signing bonus.

That extension obviously signals how satisfied the Steelers are with him at center after just one year with them. He replaced Sean Mahan, an undersized center who started the 2007 season after Jeff Hartings retired.

Hartwig not only helped settle down that position, but he became a leader of the line, and it was in his home where the linemen gathered weekly last season for some extra work watching tape and discussing their opponent that week.

And, while we're at it, a little more checking reveals that Hartwig was not at fault when he did not snap the ball quickly when a Buffalo defensive lineman jumped over the line in the third preseason game. Some veteran centers are given the freedom to do that to draw an encroachment penalty, but the coaches here do not teach that.

As Hartwig, his coach and former center/tackle Tunch Ilkin pointed out, it's just not often done. Two other things can happen when a center tries that, both of them bad: A fumble, if a penalty is not called, or an injury to the quarterback, such as a snapped finger.

Casey at the bat

The photo opportunity of the year occurred after practice yesterday when 350-something nose tackle Casey Hampton hoisted cancer victim Heather Miller, 11, into the air after practice. His teammates, who surrounded tiny Heather, broke out in applause.

Miller, from Bedford, visited the Steelers and her two favorite players, Hampton and Troy Polamalu, as part of the Make-A-Wish charity. Her visit with the Steelers will be featured on "The Today Show" tomorrow morning on NBC, with Tiki Barber reporting.

For more on the Steelers, read the new blog, Ed Bouchette On the Steelers at post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette can be reached at ebouchette@post-gazette.com .


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