LATROBE, Pa. – Ziggy Hood is living up to his end of the bargain so far.
In Coach Mike Tomlin's world, it's up to the second-year players to come to training camp and impress, to show the coaching staff and their teammates that they're ready to contribute to the team in a significant fashion.
Hood started this camp by schooling rookie No. 1 pick Maurkice Pounce in a couple of repetitions of a one-on-one drill, and he has used that as somewhat of a springboard as he continues to impress as the preseason opener approaches.
"He has taken the kind of jump that you expect a second year member to take," said Tomlin. "This guy worked extremely hard, and it would be tough to find anybody who spent more time in our building this offseason than Ziggy. It is paying off for him out here, and he is playing with a great deal of confidence. He is still a very young guy and still has a ways to go technically on some things. We like what we see. He has great passion for the sport and he is displaying it daily."
All of that is true, and a good sign. But the reality of Hood's existence right now is that he plays defensive end, and the two guys ahead of him on the depth chart are Brett Keisel and Aaron Smith. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau made it clear what he thought of them, along with Casey Hampton, from the podium at the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
"Guys ask me, 'Coach, what's the perfect 3-4? Who would be the very ideal people at each position?'" said LeBeau. "I said, 'Well, really, truthfully, you start with Casey Hampton, Aaron Smith, and Brett Keisel on the defensive line.' Really, seriously. Not only great players, they're totally unselfish. In the 3-4 your linemen have to be a little unselfish because you know everybody is going to talk about the linebackers and the safeties all day."
Smith and Keisel are so respected by the coaches that they typically play all but a couple of snaps in every game. But in keeping with LeBeau's assessment of their selflessness, Keisel has said help from Hood could be welcomed.
"I don't have a problem with coming out of the game as long as there's no drop-off with the guy coming in," Keisel said. "I think that's when we've been at our best, when we've had a rotation of guys who can come in and play. It keeps us all fresh during the game and at the end of the season. The more guys we can have ready to play the better."
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Tuesday's practice was conducted under the most brutal conditions so far this summer, with the on-field heat index reaching 103-degrees. Tomlin, dressed all in black as usual, loved it.
"We have some 1 p.m. kickoffs in September that will be challenging – in Nashville and Tampa – so we needed days like this to help with our preparation," said Tomlin.
Tomlin has said he wears all black on hot days to communicate to his players that he doesn't care about the weather, and he put that into words for the media after the session concluded.
"We go about our business," said Tomlin when asked about any special concessions to the heat. "These guys are professionals and we urge them to take professional type steps in terms of pre-hydrating and taking advantage of the hydration opportunities we provide them during the course of our work. We don't run an operation that creates water scarcity. There's always water and Gatorade and refreshment around, and what we don't want to do is miss a snap. We come out here to do our business, and we expect those guys to prepare themselves on the front end, during, and then make the necessary adjustments to prepare themselves after."
The competitive team period of the afternoon was another session of the two-minute drill. The situation was this: 1:26 on the clock, ball on the offense's 48-yard line, one timeout, and the offense needed to score a touchdown.
Byron Leftwich was the quarterback with the first-team offense, and Dennis Dixon got the shot with the second unit, but neither was successful.
Leftwich was 2-for-7 for 22 yards, and he had a third-and-10 pass dropped by Antwaan Randle El. Dixon had marginally better statistics – 4-of-11 for 42 yards – but he wasn't able to get his team into the end zone either. The final play of Dixon's set was an untimed down, because Thaddeus Gibson jumped offside on the previous play. On a third-and-5 from the 7-yard line, Dixon escaped the pass rush and seemed to have a chance to run into the end zone, but he tried to get the ball to Tyler Grisham instead and Patrick Bailey broke it up.
"He thought there was a strong possibility that he could have (run it into the end zone," said Tomlin. "We'll look at it on video. Of course in that situation when it is the last play of the game you better be sure you can get it into the end zone."
About the play of Leftwich and Dixon in the drill, Tomlin said, "It's more about the quarterbacks. It's about people working together. We have some young receivers who are stepping up and trying to put themselves in the mix. There's also the pass protection, from a blitz pickup standpoint. That drill challenges everyone, not just the quarterbacks."
INJURY REPORT: Said Tomlin, "Joe Burnett is a new injury. It's something that's rib-related, whether it's muscular or cartilage, we'll get some additional information there. Jason Worilds continues to march his way back from his hamstring. He was able to participate in the majority of the practice. It deteriorated on him in the last two periods of the practice, and hopefully he'll do better tomorrow. James Harrison still has a little shoulder discomfort. We expect him back tomorrow, but we'll see."
GOAL-LINE DRILL UPDATE: When it was originally scored, the offense won, 4-3, but the defense complained that a touchdown awarded to Dwayne Wright was not a touchdown, and Tomlin has agreed. "There has been an official reversal," said Tomlin. "No. 38, Dwayne Wright was not in the end zone, so it nullifies the whole sequence, so I get what I want and maybe we get to do it again. (Conditioning coordinator) Garrett Giemont, who called that play a touchdown, is suspect at this juncture. He got swayed by Ben Roethlisberger. It's on video. It's evident that Ben whispered in his ear, and he signaled touchdown."