Steelers count on Eason on defense
Nick Eason spent four of the first five games of the season not even wearing a uniform on game day. Even though he had played in 61 National Football League games in his seven-year career, he was one of the eight players usually deactivated by coach Mike Tomlin. His spot on the roster was taken by rookie Ziggy Hood, the Steelers' No. 1 draft choice.
That, though, did not necessarily reflect what the team thought of Eason, a 6-foot-3, 305-pound defensive end.
When Aaron Smith was placed on the injured reserve list Oct. 14, ending his season, it was Eason who moved up on the depth chart, not Hood. In the ensuing two games, it was Eason who would mostly back up Travis Kirschke, the new starter at left defensive end, not Hood.
And, if Kirschke is unable to play Nov. 9 in Denver because of a calf he injured in Sunday's 27-17 victory against the Minnesota Vikings, it will be Eason who will start at left defensive end against the Broncos, not Hood.
"We like the experience factor," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said the other day. "We have great confidence in Nick Eason. He's played for us and delivered for us. We won't hesitate to use him if Travis is out."
LeBeau said it's too early to know if Kirschke or even inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons (ankle) will be able to play against the Broncos. That won't begin to be determined until the players report back to work Monday after the off week.
But their injuries were significant enough that LeBeau said both players probably would not have played if the Steelers had a game this weekend. However, he added that Kirschke's injury should not keep him out for any extended period of time.
"I think he's going to be OK, but whether they make it back for this game [in Denver], I don't know," LeBeau said. "It's too early to call. I am happy we have a bye week. That will give them extra days [to recover]."
The extra days off will work well for Eason, too.
He said he is going back home to Lyons, Ga., to spend time with his two daughters and his mother, Betty, who has cancer. But he said he will use the time to work on his conditioning to get ready for possibly his fifth NFL start, especially in the high altitude in Denver.
"I'm just going to get a lot of running done with Travis being hurt," Eason said. "I realize that we have a big game coming up in Denver, where sometimes the altitude can affect you. So I'll work on getting a lot of cardio in this week."
The Steelers chose to dress Hood, not Eason, for the first five games of the season because they wanted to make sure they could get some amount of playing time for their No. 1 pick, even if it was just for a few plays. LeBeau has done that with other young players in his defense, especially former No. 1 picks such as Timmons and safety Troy Polamalu.
But when Smith was injured, development had to take a back seat to experience and dependability, which is why Eason has received the bulk of the playing time, rather than Hood, as a substitute for Kirschke.
Eason appeared for 18 plays, Hood 7, against the Cleveland Browns, the first game without Smith. Against the Vikings, Eason had 26 plays compared to 11 for Hood -- numbers that increased after Kirschke was injured late in the fourth quarter and didn't return.
"We think we have a quality player to develop in Ziggy and we want him to get as many snaps as we can," LeBeau said. "I think he got more snaps last week, which was good. That's the reason we're going to keep him up if we can -- so he can continue to develop. We think he has a great upside. In this defense in particular, it helps to have game experience, and he's getting that."
First Published October 31, 2009 12:02 am