Steelers' Tomlin addresses weighty issue

| Thursday, June 18, 2009

As Steelers coach Mike Tomlin delivered a not-so-subtle conditioning message to his players at the end of voluntary practices last week, one of his intended targets was nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is entering the final year of his contract.

Perhaps it was no coincidence that Tomlin also praised defensive lineman Ziggy Hood, the team's first-round pick.

At the start of training camp last year, Tomlin held Hampton out for the first week, when he failed to complete a conditioning run. When asked if Hampton is in better shape this year, Tomlin didn't exactly give Hampton a ringing endorsement.

"I'm always in a wait-and-see position (with Hampton)," Tomlin said.

When it came to Hood, a 4-3 defensive tackle at Missouri who is learning to play 3-4 defensive end, Tomlin had plenty of good things to say.

"The one thing that stands out about (Hood) is him running to the football," Tomlin said. "He covers a lot of ground for a big man. It's unique for his position.''

According to Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell, end is more difficult to learn than nose tackle.

Hood, though, has an advantage in that he is a natural one-gap defensive tackle, the type the coaching staff prefers (Hampton is a natural two-gap.).

One-gap nose tackles are counted on to attack and shoot the gap between the center and guard and make plays in the backfield. Two-gap nose tackles are expected to read and tie-up multiple offensive linemen, thereby allowing linebackers to make plays.

Perhaps Tomlin's comments regarding Hampton's conditioning is a signal that Hood could receive playing time at nose tackle early in his rookie year.

Also, the Steelers have veteran backup Chris Hoke, who started three games last season, when Hampton was injured, and rookie Ra'Shon Harris, a sixth-round pick out of Oregon.

For the moment, at least, Hood will play outside.

"I just know defensive end right now," Hood said. "That's what I'm working on. My goal is to focus on my job, not on anything else. If they move me to nose tackle, I'll have to pick up even more. With me playing end, I kind of know what the nose is doing.

"I've got great teachers, especially with Hoke and Big Hamp. With those guys teaching me, I'll be able to adjust to anything.

"I'll just have to be able to put more weight on, plus become a better player at that position if they decide to move me. Not to say I'm going to develop as much as Casey, but I'll probably be a little quicker. Maybe on passing downs, I can come in and aid them a little bit."

Like Tomlin, Mitchell addressed Hampton's conditioning issues after the Steelers drafted Hood in the first round.

"Casey, I think he was embarrassed when he came back (to training camp last summer) with the weight situation," Mitchell said.

If Tomlin doesn't think Hampton's conditioning is where it needs to be at camp, Mitchell sounded like he believes Hood - the first defensive lineman taken by the Steelers in the first round since Hampton in 2001 - can play defensive end and nose tackle.

"He is not going to have any problem learning our scheme because we ask our defensive ends to do a lot," Mitchell said. "It is easy to play nose tackle because we do a lot of things with them, but it is simple."

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