On The Steelers: Hood faces test in first start

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Ask any athlete in any professional sport how he remembers the first game he started, and he will respond with more details than he can recall from his first date.

Take Steelers defensive end Nick Eason, who entered the NFL in 2003 and had to wait a long time before he made his first start in 2006. Those are games you just don't forget.

"You know what? I don't remember mine," Eason said Wednesday as he shed another day's worth of practice uniform.

He thought for a moment, then said, "Yeah, I actually do."

He thought for another moment, then said, "No, I don't. I'm sorry. It was in Cleveland, but I don't remember against what team."

Actually, it was in San Diego, but it was for Cleveland. Eason had one tackle that day. Sunday in Miami, Eason started his 10th career game in his eight NFL seasons, and it's possible No. 11 will occur this Sunday night in New Orleans.

But more attention will go to a player who likely will make his first NFL start a few spots over from Eason at left defensive end because everything first-round draft picks do draws more attention.

Halloween night in New Orleans could be the start of a new era and an end to an old one for the Steelers if Ziggy Hood makes his first start, replacing the injured and revered Aaron Smith. It still is possible that Brett Keisel will shake off his hamstring injury and return to start at right defensive end and that coach Mike Tomlin would start Eason for Smith and not Hood. The signs, though, are pointing toward Hood, the Steelers' first-round draft choice, getting his first start against the Saints.

"I would love to start," Hood said. "You dream about the chance. It's bad when you get a chance to start over a guy with an injury; you never wish that on anybody. But now's my chance to maybe go out there and do something; hopefully, you do as great a job as he does."

Hood has a long way to go for that. Smith, too, made his first start in his second season with the Steelers. Made 15 actually that year, 2000, after Tom Donahoe drafted him in the fourth round in 1999 from Northern Colorado, a Division II team. Smith did not miss another game until 2007, missing just one start during that span because the Steelers opened in a different alignment.

Smith is a legend in the Steelers' locker room, and Hood not only has to pick up the slack but carry the pressure of being a first-round pick.

"Obviously, people look at him as your No. 1 pick, that you're supposed to do this and do that," Eason said. "Ziggy knows his role. Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel are our starters. Those guys deserve where they're at. Sometimes as a backup you have opportunities, but they're limited.

"In this defense, it's about doing your job. It ain't all about stats. We don't get into stats. It's about making plays and doing your job. There's no pressure from us. He's a competent guy and he probably puts pressure on himself, and that's good. I'm excited for him. He's going to do well and he's going to have a long career."

Hood has one solo tackle, one assist, three quarterback pressures, one pass defense as a sub mainly for Smith through six games this season. In 16 games as a sub last season, he had four solo tackles, three assists, one sack, one fumble recovery.

His experience as a No. 1 draft choice -- not having started a game yet after the first six games of his second season -- is not much different than other top picks of the Steelers.

Lawrence Timmons did not make his first start until his second season, and did not make his second start until his third season. Rashard Mendenhall did not make his second start until the fourth game of his second season. Santonio Holmes started only four games as a rookie, Troy Polamalu started none.

Not everyone can be Maurkice Pouncey or Ben Roethlisberger. And nobody expects Ziggy Hood to be Aaron Smith, at least not right away.

"You have a guy like Aaron Smith who has been our anchor in our defense for years and years, he's a guy you can't really replace," said linebacker and captain James Farrior. "It's going to be tough on Ziggy. He has some big shoes to fill.

"He's a young guy who still needs to learn a little bit. But I definitely think he's ready for the challenge now, more than he has [been] in the past."

He must because, even though the Steelers did not end Smith's season by placing him on injured reserve, it does not mean he will play again in 2010. The Ziggy Era is at hand.

"He's not had the kind of production he'd like thus far, but the season is still early," coach Mike Tomlin said.

"Boy, he's got a big-time opportunity to work on that this weekend."

Quick hits

Linebacker James Harrison thought he had made a diving interception on Chad Henne's last pass Sunday in Miami, and Wednesday the NFL agreed with him. The officials, according to the league, actually ruled Harrison had intercepted the pass, which becomes his first and the ninth by the Steelers this season. Statisticians failed to record it Sunday as an interception; instead recording an incompletion. ... Keisel (hamstring), outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and offensive tackle Flozell Adams (ankle) did not practice Wednesday. ... While the Steelers worked out veteran defensive lineman Jay Alford (from Penn State) Wednesday, they likely will sign Steve McLendon again from their practice squad this week. ... Rookie offensive tackle Chris Scott, whose foot was fractured in June, entered his second week of practice after coming off the physically unable to perform list last week. He can practice this week and next, and then the Steelers must decide whether to put him on the 53-man roster, put him on injured reserve or waive him. ... The last time the previous two Super Bowl winners met in the regular season was Sept. 4, 2000, when the St. Louis Rams played the Denver Broncos.

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 .


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