Ron Cook: Just when it looked as if no one could replace Smith, along comes Ziggy
Ziggy Hood celebrates after sacking Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter Saturday.
Share with others:
Go back to Oct. 24, a warm, wet afternoon in South Florida. The Steelers beat the Miami Dolphins, 23-22, to go to 5-1. It should have been a joyous winning locker room, but it most certainly was not. The team won a big game but lost defensive end Aaron Smith, maybe for the season, maybe even for good, because of a torn left triceps muscle.
"I'm sick," linebacker James Farrior said.
Because Smith might be the most beloved and respected player on the Steelers. "If I could be like him and live my life like he lives his, I'd die a happy man," Pro Bowl defensive end Brett Keisel once said. But also because Smith had been a huge part of the defense for 11-plus seasons. "Anytime he's not in there, it kills us," nose tackle Casey Hampton said.
You might say.
In the 2007 season, the Steelers went 1-2 down the stretch and lost in the playoffs to the Jacksonville Jaguars after Smith's right biceps was torn. In '08, they won Super Bowl XLIII when he played in every game. In '09, they went 6-5 and missed the playoffs after his right rotator cuff was torn.
"We're going to find out if we can win without him," wide receiver Hines Ward said that day in Sun Life Stadium.
Everyone in the locker room had doubts.
"We were all worried," Farrior recalled this week. "But Ziggy stepped up in a big way."
Evander "Ziggy" Hood.
I'm thinking he saved the Steelers' season.
The team finished the regular season 7-3 without Smith. Its top-ranked run defense gave up 63.8 yards per game with Smith and 62.1 with Hood, an amazing statistic because Smith is known as a peerless 3-4 run-stopping defensive end. Overall, the defense gave up 36 fewer yards per game with Hood.
"He's been getting better every week, but I thought the last game was his best game," Farrior said.
The 31-24 playoff win against the Baltimore Ravens Saturday.
"He was all over the place," Farrior said. "He played good fundamental football. He had to play that way for us to win."
Hood was a big part of a defensive effort that limited the Ravens to 126 yards, 28 in the second half. He sacked quarterback Joe Flacco on the Ravens' next-to-last play, forcing a fourth-and-18 that the Ravens failed to convert when wide receiver T.J. Houshmandzadeh dropped Flacco's pass. It was the third consecutive game in which Hood had a sack.
Now, the Steelers will play the New York Jets Sunday night in the AFC championship game.
No one was predicting that back on that October day in South Florida.
The Steelers drafted Hood No. 1 in 2009, but he had shown little to that point to indicate he was ready for a starring role. Now, suddenly, he was thrust into one. "It was a little overwhelming at first," Hood said. "It felt like I was trying to fill giant shoes."
Give Hood credit for seizing the opportunity. He started studying the game plan a little more. He paid more attention to the opponent's offensive linemen and their tendencies. He put greater emphasis on the details of his position. He worked harder on his run-stopping techniques.
"It shocked me how he was able to absorb everything so quickly," the great Smith said. "He picked it up as fast as anyone I've ever been around."
It helped that Hood was willing to listen. Not just to his coaches, but to the Steelers' veteran starting defensive linemen -- Smith, Keisel and Hampton and backups Chris Hoke and Nick Eason, both of whom made big contributions this season, especially when Keisel missed five games and most of a sixth with a hamstring injury. Hood might be a No. 1 pick, but he didn't act like he had all the answers.
"I might have said something to him here and there, but don't give me any credit," Smith said. "He did it all on his own."
"Aaron's helped me tremendously," Hood said. "Watch us at practice. He's always telling me what I can do better. It's easy to pat a guy on the back and tell him he's doing great. I'd rather have the constructive criticism. If Aaron can tweak something to make me better, I'm all for it. I want to be great. I'm not even close to that yet. Until you can mention me in the same sentence with Aaron Smith, I've got to keep working."
Hood might never achieve Smith-like status, but he's on his way to a strong career. "Wait until you see him next year and the year after," Smith said. "He's just starting to realize that he belongs. As a player, you have to build that confidence."
Hood is looking no farther ahead than the game Sunday. He's like every other Steelers player. He wants to beat the Jets for himself so he can play in a Super Bowl, but he also wants to beat them so Smith, 34, can play in another. There's a good chance Smith will be ready if the Steelers can get to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.
That's powerful motivation, just as it was in the '05 season when the Steelers wanted to win Super Bowl XL for retiring running back Jerome Bettis. The players have that same regard for Smith.
"I'd love to see him play again," Hood said. "We always tease him that he's as old as Father Time. But he's such a great player and such a great man."
Smith is a pretty good mentor, too.
Hood is the proof.
"I just hope I'm good enough one day that they talk about me the same way they talk about Aaron," he said.
That's not a bad career goal, right?
Not a bad career goal at all.
First Published January 21, 2011 12:00 am