Replacing Aaron Smith: Is Ziggy Hood Up to This Monumental Task?

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Replacing Aaron Smith: Is Ziggy Hood Up to This Monumental Task?
(Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)

I once had a conversation with a friend of mine in which we wondered how, in the 1960s, makers of top shelf single malt scotches could have foreseen the accessory that their product would become some 25 years later.  

We agreed that the limited quantity only added to the price, and in the mid 1980s, the necessity of this immoderate beverage.  

At the other end of the spectrum, we mused about the people consuming this premium product, people whose path to distinction came about under opposite circumstances.  This era of the profiteer belonged to the microwave generation who needed everything yesterday.

Divergent paths to greatness and the army of metaphors that illustrate them can beg the question, how long should an investment take to mature?

Never before have I asked myself that more as a Steelers fan than this year, as the quality of our drafts under coach Mike Tomlin are called into question.

In the wake of the announcement of the season ending injury to Aaron Smith, I am now hearing that our 2009 No. 1 draft choice, Evander "Ziggy" Hood will be the young man who gets his turn under the microscope.

Joining nearly every analyst in Steeler nation in our prognosis as recently as two weeks ago that the entire 2008 class was a bad bet, we can now see some hope that we were all possibly wrong.

We are proud fans; we want a highly polished unit who is an unstoppable force.  The thing is, our team who won the Super Bowl last year was far from that and yet they were winners all the way.

I think I am seeing evidence that Rashard Mendenhall will grow into the back of the future he was drafted to be, and yet my recent decision that he was a bust reminds me that I am not a scout, a coach, and certainly not a psychic.

Since I cannot see into the future, and with the past too close to the present to get a good read, I am going to focus on what the Steelers can do right now before I become dismayed with the fact that Ziggy Hood needs more time to be developed.

Today's NFL teams want to put their exorbitant investments to work immediately, and they also expect that the payoff will be high.

The Steelers can take much of the credit or the blame for this.  Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had to step in when Tommy Maddox was injured early in the 2004 season.

The team worked with the young Roethlisberger and brought him along the best way that they saw fit.

Roethlisberger had great success running the no-huddle offense while he played for Miami of Ohio, yet that was not a weapon that was to be unleashed by him as a rookie in the NFL.

Under the watchful eye of Cowher's coaching staff, Roethlisberger laid down the blueprint for a rookie quarterback achieving major success in the NFL.

Before Ben, quarterbacks were groomed for a season or two from the sidelines.  

It was the perfect storm that blew into Pittsburgh when Roethlisberger was called upon to take the reins, but it indeed took a storm to initiate his career.  

A kid with phenomenal talent and an ability to learn on the job combined with a coach who knew how to minimize the growing pains that generally befall rookie QBs and presto, the team goes 15-1.

Well, it wasn't that easy, Jeff Reed kicked more than one game winning field goal that year, but the season was not lost after the team lost a player at its most critical position.

The shocking news that the key to our run defense, Aaron Smith was a casualty following last Sunday's game against the Detroit Lions is certainly not bringing hope to Steeler Nation.

We are suddenly revisiting the disheartening events of the end of the Steelers' 2007 season.  Following an injury to Aaron Smith, we lost not only the last three regular season games, but succumbed to the running game of the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card Playoff at Heinz Field.

Aaron Smith going on IR is awful news to any Steelers fan, but still, there is more than a glimmer of hope left for the team.

Ziggy Hood is not unavailable to step in at defensive end for the Steelers; he is just not ready to have the job land squarely on his shoulders.

With the re-signing of Ra'Shon "Sunny" Harris from the Carolina Panthers' practice squad, the Steelers have brought back another promising defensive lineman they had acquired in this year's draft.

The Steelers had recently shown interest in resigning their sixth-round draft pick, but he signed to Carolina's practice squad after it was reported that he felt he would have a better chance of making the team with the Panthers.  That changed for him Sunday.

Ziggy Hood will step in to the rotation first, but will continue to develop under the watchful eye of Steelers assistant head coach and defensive line coach John Mitchell.

Mitchell is a stickler for details and likes to make sure that he takes the time that is necessary to properly coach the fundamentals to his players.

In an interview with Steelers.com immediately following the draft, coach Mitch talked at length about the need to invest time in the development of both Hood and Harris.

Mitchell explained that both players have the nuts and bolts that he could build upon.  He mentioned that they both can use their hands, stay upright, and both have shown strong character, intelligence, and a desire to commit themselves to a difficult task.

Mitchell also stressed that Aaron Smith was here for four years and Keisel for two before they started.  It does make me a bit wishful that the Steelers would have squirreled away a defensive end or two from a draft in a previous year, but wishing will not make it so.

Coach Mitch knows that a defensive end in the Steelers system will need time and patience to mature properly.  Nick Eason and Travis Kirschke have filled in before and though they cannot measure up to the talent that Aaron Smith brings to the line, they know the system and their wisdom will balance out the raw skill of Harris and Hood.

I don't think that Ziggy is the new Big Ben, but as we are seeing in the NFL, quarterbacks are being hustled into the lineup faster than ever before.

I don't for a minute doubt the assessment of coach Mitch, a coach I respect as much (if not more) than any in the league, but this season we simply do not have the luxury of letting Ziggy age and mellow like a fine single malt scotch.

Conversely, to throw him in at starter simply because he is a first rounder is to overwhelm a talent that requires a more nurturing environment than that of a microwave oven's carousel.

As these youngsters transition before our eyes from their college days in a 4-3 defenses to playing in the Steelers' 3-4 there are many fine points to master.

Just like Ben had veteran team mates like Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis to lean on as he grew leaps and bounds in his rookie season, Hood and Harris will share the duties at defensive end with the "committee" that Tomlin spoke of when naming Smith's replacements.

Before I throw in the towel on the Steelers season, I take heart.  

Though his name was mentioned far less than that of Aaron Smith before his injury, Coach Mitchell rarely produces work that begs for criticism.

Looking at the play of Smith, Hampton and Keisel, we can get a sense of a coach who has the dedication to produce players who possess skill and maturity. 

Even on a less than favorable schedule, if the season is in anyone's hands, be thankful it is in the capable hands of the assistant head coach, coach Mitch.

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