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Young linemen strengthen Steelers

| Monday, July 30, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers defensive tackles Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood, both former first-round picks, have helped the team’s defense get younger. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Ziggy Hood and Cam Heyward are first-round draft picks but, as they are fast learning, numbers mean nothing at this Steelers training camp.

Especially the number 1.

Maybe the message came from coach Mike Tomlin — a likely source — or defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, but it is being repeated so often at St. Vincent College that it might as well be printed on a bumper sticker.

Statistics are for losers.

A supposedly too-old Steelers defense was No. 1 overall and No. 1 against the pass last season yet, as defensive line coach John Mitchell said, “Stats can say anything. You can cut stats up anyway you want to. We didn't have a good season last year. Our deal is not to have great stats, it's to win the Super Bowl.”

Linebacker LaMarr Woodley picked up on the theme, saying, “The ranking was high, but I don't think we played good defense last year. We didn't get that many turnovers, we didn't get to the quarterback that much.”

That's where Hood and Heyward come in. At least the Steelers hope that's where they do as their starting defense becomes younger and, perhaps, more efficient.

It's uncommon for recent first-round draft picks to share the same position, but Hood and Heyward are running 1-2 at left defensive end. Hood, a first-round pick in 2009, is the starter at the position long held by Aaron Smith, who retired following three consecutive seasons ended by injury.

Heyward, a first-rounder in 2011 and the son of former Pitt and NFL running back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward, is expected to play at least one-third of the snaps because Mitchell routinely rotates players.

“When you've got players who can play and there's no drop-off, you like to keep them fresh,” Mitchell said. “There are about 65-70 plays in a game and you want to be fresh in the fourth quarter, so the only way to do that is to rotate those players during the game.”

Not that Hood, who started all but two games last season, intends to let Heyward push past him to take the majority of the snaps.

“I didn't get on the team to ride shotgun to anybody,” Hood said. “It's mine, I guess now, and I'm going to do the things to keep that job. … You've got two guys they drafted and took special interest in. If we have to battle, that's what we'll do. It's only going to bring the best out in both of us. I think we're both doing the right things.”

Heyward can play either the left side or the right, where Brett Keisel starts. When the Steelers go with the 25-year-old Hood, the 26-year-old Steve McLendon and the 23-year-old Heyward together, it becomes one of their youngest defensive lines ever.

McLendon will start the season at nose tackle if 12-year veteran Casey Hampton isn't ready. Hampton is recovering from a torn knee ligament and still isn't ready to practice.

Maybe it's because a first-rounder is pushing him, or that he wasn't satisfied with a 2011 season in which he had 1½ sacks in 14 starts, but Hood wasn't about to gamble with his starting job. He went through his most exhaustive offseason conditioning program, one that emphasized much more than weight lifting.

Hood developed such leg strength and dexterity that, despite weighing 307 pounds, he can sit on a chair and, in one motion, leap up and balance himself on top of a 50-inch pedestal, as evidenced by an online video.

“When I get there (the weight room) in the morning, he's always done working out,” rookie nose tackle Alameda Ta'amu said.

Hood felt he needed to get into better condition after being bothered by some minor injuries last season.

“I want to stay healthier — when you stay healthier, you last a little longer,” he said. “That's why I took better care of myself this offseason, to make sure I can prevent those kinds of injuries.”

And, he might have added, to help the Steelers avoid losses like the upset defeat in Denver that shockingly ended a season in which they achieved much by going 12-4 but, despite fielding a top-of-the-league defense, didn't win the AFC North or a single playoff game.

“We hold ourselves to a higher standard than people think,” Hood said. “We feel like we could have done better. We're going to have to do better this year.”

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at

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