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Steelers DE Hood making steady progress

Late October is generally not an ideal time to go to a beach north of the Mason-Dixon line.

That didn't stop Ziggy Hood from using the break last week to trek to Atlantic City, N.J., and see the ocean for the first time.

"It's like taking a Deep South kid and taking him somewhere where it snows," said Hood, the Steelers' rookie defensive end who grew up in the panhandle of Texas. "They're intrigued by it. So, I was out there messing with the seashells and just walking along the sand."

Hood also went in the water while in Atlantic City, which is fitting since he may feel like he is swimming against the current at times during another unfamiliar experience.

Hood has had to make the transition from tackle in a 4-3 defense to end in a 3-4 alignment. Progress has come in increments rather than leaps — the next tackle Hood makes will be his first one in the NFL — but the Steelers have been encouraged by what they have seen from their 2009 first-round draft pick.

"He's a tough guy to block on Wednesdays and Thursdays," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said of Hood, "which means at some point he's going to be a tough guy to block on Sundays. We'll see when that happens."

Hood is part of the three-man rotation the Steelers use at left defensive end in place of Aaron Smith, who is out for the season with a shoulder injury.

The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Hood has played sparingly in seven games. The Steelers, however, may have to depend on Hood more with the midway point of the season approaching.

Travis Kirschke, the new starter at left defensive end, is questionable for Monday night's game against the Denver Broncos because of a strained calf. If Kirschke, who also has been playing through chronic back pain, is unable to go in Denver, seventh-year veteran Nick Eason and Hood will get the majority of the snaps at left defensive end.

"He comes in every day with the mindset to get better," Tomlin said of Hood. "He's a very hard and diligent worker."

The biggest adjustment Hood has had to make since joining the Steelers is as much mental as it is physical.

In the Steelers' scheme, defensive ends are required to stand their ground and occupy blockers.

That is a significant change for a player whose motto at the University of Missouri was "tackle the running back on the way to the quarterback."

"Here it's more get your hands on the guy, hold your gap," Hood said. "You've got to hold your point of attack and allow the linebackers to get there."

It may sound simple, but playing end in the Steelers' defense comes with as steep a learning curve as almost any other position. That is why the Steelers prefer to bring young defensive ends, like Hood, along slowly.

"Each game, I'm going to get better," Hood said. "I won't have a breakout game not until two, three years down the line. But I'm going to do what I can to make sure if I'm in (the game), nothing goes wrong."

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