Aaron Smith will not go on the injured reserve list, at least not now, but that doesn't change what is now a fact of life for the 2010 Steelers:
It's Ziggy time.
Ziggy Hood was the team's first-round draft pick in 2009, and his ascension up the depth chart has been slowed by the presence of Smith and Brett Keisel, two players cited by coordinator Dick LeBeau as part of the ultimate defensive line in a 3-4 scheme. But Smith had surgery on Oct. 25 to repair a partially torn triceps, and Keisel will be trying to work his way back onto the field after injuring a hamstring vs. Cleveland on Oct. 17.
When Smith was injured in 2009 in the season's fifth game, the Steelers stuck with their reliable veterans who had helped the team win Super Bowl XLIII. Travis Kirschke started seven games and Eason started four as Hood continued to learn his craft. Six of Hood's seven tackles on defense and his one sack came in the final five games of the regular season, and when Kirschke was not re-signed it seemed as though Hood would be the No. 3 defensive end in 2010.
It really hasn't turned out that way. Hood and veteran Nick Eason competed for the right to start in Keisel's place last Sunday in Miami, and the Steelers decided to go with the more experienced player, the player who had gotten more work on the right side of the defensive line.
But unless Keisel can return to the lineup for Sunday night's game against the Saints, the Steelers' choice is a simple one.
"More than anything right now is that we have Ziggy Hood and Nick Eason ready to play defensive end," said Tomlin, "and until we get further information we have to proceed with that mentality. Hopefully at the latter part of the week we will be able to ponder the possibility of Brett Keisel's participation."
Pondering the length of time it has taken for Hood to see significant playing time on defense, and the fact that the significant time will come because of injuries might lead some to believe he has been a disappointment. Tomlin, however, isn't among the some.
"He had a great training camp and preseason, has not had the kind of production that he would like thus far, but this season is still early," said Tomlin. "He has a big-time opportunity to work on that this weekend. Knowing him I know he will do what is necessary in the process. I just saw him downstairs, in here today, getting in a little extra work on a Tuesday. Not that that is out of the ordinary though. He is not the kind of guy who is only responding to an opportunity. That is just Evander Hood."
Hood is a hard-worker, a coachable player who wants to get better and be a contributing member of a unit that is consistently ranked among the best defenses in the league. So far this season, Hood has two tackles, three pressures and a pass defensed, but his is a position that's not necessarily defined by statistics. But he can expect to find his performance compared to the man he will replace in the lineup.
"Anytime you lose a player, and particularly a player such as Aaron, others have to step up," said Tomlin. "You know the philosophy that we are bound by in terms of the standard being the standard, and what we mean by that quite frankly is those who step in for him have to play winning football, and that there are no excuses. Our intentions will be the same on Sunday night, and that is to play winning football.
"Do I expect the guys who take his place to play like Aaron, or to make similar plays? Maybe not. But they better be above the line. They better play winning football, and I acknowledge that our group understands what it's about under those circumstances as well. And generally we will get timely plays from others to compensate. That is part of being a team, and that of course is something we buy into."