Trivia question: What does John Goodman have to do with Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward?
If you're thinking of the stout actor of "Big Lebowski" fame, try again. Because in 1982, a second-year player from Oklahoma with the same name, along with veteran Tom Beasley, were the first starting ends in a new 3-4 scheme that would become the die-cast for Steelers defenses up to the modern zone variation they employ today.
The reloading-not-rebuilding tenet of the near-mythological "Steeler Way" has been a dominant theme of the current OTAs, and one can look to the history of the defensive ends as a case study in consistency, where the lines of succession might be the envy of the British monarchy.
In the 30 years the Steelers have employed the 3-4, there have been 20 primary starters at end, and 16 did it for multiple seasons -- Goodman, Beasley, Keith Gary, Keith Willis, Edmund Nelson, Donald Evans and Kevin Henry to name a few. With rare exceptions, it has been an orderly procession of veterans breaking in, teaching and ultimately passing the torch to younger players.
Recently retired Aaron Smith made his first career start in 2000, just down the line from five-year starter Henry. In '03, rookie Brett Keisel studied under veterans Smith and Kimo von Oelhoffen. Keisel made his first start in '06, and, with Smith, began the tutelage of first-round picks Ziggy Hood in '09 and Cam Heyward last year.
Now, Keisel finds himself in the role of the bearded sage while Hood and Heyward vie to replace Smith and the crater-sized vacuum of leadership and skill he leaves behind. Hood has the inside track, having seen significant starting time in the past two seasons in place of the oft-injured Smith. Keisel believes Hood is ready.
"Ziggy's been fortunate because, since the day he got here, he's been basically forced into playing," Keisel said. "When Aaron went down his rookie year, he had to come in and play right away so he has those mental reps, those physical reps, those game reps that you can't get any other way.
"You can go out here and practice all you want, but, until you take it out and do it at game speed -- it's a whole other level. Luckily for him, he's been doing that now for three years, so stepping into this role as the starter from the get-go I don't think will be a big transition at all for him."
An affable West Texan with an 'aw-shucks' Amarillo twang, Hood embraces the challenge.
"Every guy wants the opportunity to start," he said. "What better chance than to get my opportunity right now. I've been working hard all offseason. I had a great offseason. I stayed around here. No need to go home. Pretty much just family and football for me.
"Now, all you can focus on is the small things -- taking the right step, hand placement, getting your hips by -- all the little things that make you a better player.
"I feel ready. I've never been a vocal leader, but I try to do my best to lead by example," he said, a point not lost on Heyward, who called Hood an "animal" in the weight room.
"All we do is just attack it hard," Hood said.
"If we're going to get up early and spend our time in the weight room, we might as well enjoy it and get big. There's no point in coming early and not doing anything, so you might as well just enjoy it and have fun with it."
On the field, Hood has been solid, if unspectacular, in 23 starts, notching 4.5 sacks. He was a standout in the '10 postseason. And yet, he hasn't made it an completely closed case, leaving open the opportunity for Heyward to put the heat on Hood -- and perhaps Keisel -- when training camp begins in July.
Heyward downplayed that idea or even a discussion of an increased role in the defense.
"I haven't even worried about that, I'm just trying to get better out here. I'll let my play show it off and continue to improve," he said, adding that he was simply glad to be taking advantage of his first OTAs (the ones last year were canceled because of the NFL's labor strife).
"I think it's vital for me to take in the playbook a lot more and learn from my mistakes and take time to shine up and oil up and learn my technique and get better at it ... I'm not a senior guy at all.
"I have a lot to learn from Keisel and [Casey Hampton]. They'll bring me along, and Zig, if he's put in charge, he'll take care of us."
Keisel is bullish on Heyward's ability and knows that sooner or later, he'll be succeeded by him.
"I believe in him, I do. I feel like he's the type of guy that has the type of character that's going to come in and keep the ship rolling in the right direction," Keisel said. "I have all the confidence in the world in Cam, and, when the day comes when I hang up the old No. 99, he'll do a great job."
Which -- for 30 years -- has been the Steelers plan.
First Published June 3, 2012 4:00 AM