By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Once upon a time, Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was forced to start, the third game in his rookie NFL season.
Second-year pro Ziggy Hood is pressed into action this week at New Orleans, as a replacement for injured left defensive end Aaron Smith, and Roethlisberger had a few encouraging words for him. The Steelers (5-1) face the Saints (4-3) Sunday night at 8:20 at the Louisiana Superdome
“Don’t try to be Aaron Smith,” Roethlisberger said. “Just be you and be the best that you can be.”
Veteran Nick Eason started for injured right defensive end Brett Keisel last Sunday at Miami and could play there again this week even though Keisel practiced on a limited basis Wednesday. Eason also had some words of wisdom for Hood, the Steelers No. 1 pick last year.
“The best teams have the most depth, and we’re one of those teams,” Eason said. “It’s been proven, and it’s why we have won the most Super Bowls. So, other guys have to step up, and it’s Ziggy’s turn this week.
“I think he’s going to be ready to play, and he’ll do well. But he doesn’t have to put a cape on his back or an ‘S’ on his chest. He just has to do his job and play within the framework of this defense and let the plays come to him.”
For Hood, it’s a dream come true, to get his first NFL start after playing just six games as a rookie No. 1 pick last year. He has played some in each game this season, but has been hampered — even though he hasn’t talked about it or missed any practice time or game reps — by a high ankle sprain.
“I think I’m good right now, maybe 95 percent or better, real close to 100, and I was moving a lot better at Miami,” Hood said. “The early games, I didn’t play too much, but I understand that. You don’t want to put a hurt guy out there and hurt the team. So, I’m doing pretty good right now.
“And I think you’ll see it in these practices. I was just trying to play as much as possible, but I would have stayed out if I couldn’t go or I thought I would have hurt the team. I kept coming to practice and tried to work hard to get the job done. I know we were down a couple linemen here and there.
“And now, we’re down two more again,” Hood added. “So, I’m ready to go. The injury knocked down a little bit of my speed, but that picked up quite a bit this week. I learned from a great guy in front of me, and he’ll be right there if I need to talk to him. I’ve always been able to count on Big ‘A’ to help me.”
Chris Hoke, the Steelers’ super-sub, primarily has been a backup nose tackle behind Pro Bowler Casey Hampton. However, he certainly can move outside if necessary this week.
“I’ll play wherever they need me,” Hoke said. “I was a defensive end when I first came in here, and then I moved to nose. But I’m the emergency guy up front, and I’ll play D-end if they need me. So, it’s one of those things where I know the defense and know what to do, and I just have to go out there and get it done.”
Hoke also had some kind words for Hood this week.
“It’s Ziggy’s time right now, and I told him to go out there and be himself,” Hoke said. “Do the job the way you’ve been coached to do it and do your best. We shouldn’t ask any more from you. As long as he plays his technique and plays within himself, he’ll be fine and our defense will survive.
“I think Nick and Ziggy are good football players, and they’re not rookies. Nick has been around a long time, and we can’t worry about who we’re losing. It’s all about who’s filling in and what they can do. Ziggy has to play left end, and he’s very athletic. He can’t be Aaron Smith, but he can do a lot for this defense.
“We talk all the time, and we’ve talked about coming off the bench,” Hoke added. “He’s a great guy, a very humble guy, and I know you want to go out there and show the coaches that you can get the job done. But you can’t try to do too much. Just do your job, and everything else will take care of itself.”
Interestingly enough, Hood noted that it’s time for him to grow up.
“It’s different on the D-line,” Hood said. “The little things are important. Sometimes, you can sit in our meetings and miss something. I probably missed some little things here and there, but now I’ve got to stay on point all the time. Aaron Smith, it doesn’t seem like he ever smiles when we’re in meetings.
“I guess he’s always focused on the task at hand. So, I’m trying to do a better job at that. For a second-year guy, I really don’t know too much, but I’m trying to get everything I can from Aaron, the meetings and on the practice field. That’s the only way I can improve and the only way to be successful here.”
Did Smith know it was bad?
“I don’t think he did. He was upset after the game when they told me. You never want to go down, and you never want to get a starting job after someone gets hurt. But that’s the way it goes in the NFL, and this is my big chance. So, I want to step it up and play hard for Aaron, because he’d do the same for us.”
Hood was asked about the most important thing he has learned from Smith.
“Patience pays off,” Hood said. “You study and work hard, and when your opportunity comes you have to take it. I just have to go out there and hopefully do something. The way I look at it, I need to focus on one play at a time and make the best play that I can on that one play. Maybe I’ll be able to get a sack.
“And maybe I’ll be able to make a big play. … Coach has challenged me, but he does it in a positive way. He’ll never try to bring you down, so that’s all done in a good way. And, really, the only guy who can push you is you yourself, and I want to push myself really hard this week to get the job done here.”
Notes: Keisel (hamstring), Smith (triceps), outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley (hamstring) and right offensive tackle Flozell Adams (ankle) were listed on the Steelers injury report as did not participate in practice. Everyone except Smith was out there moving around a bit, though. Keisel talked afterward.
“I did as much as I could do, and I feel pretty good,” Keisel said. “I didn’t want to push it to mess it up even worse. That’s easy to do, so we’re just working our way back into it slowly and see where we’re at by the end of the week. Hopefully, I’ll be all right and ready to go Sunday night. I just have to be smart.
“We’re going into our seventh game, and there’s a lot of football to be played. We still have the bulk of the season left, so I don’t want to sit out more games than I need to. … Everyone in here knows that I want to be out there competing with my teammates. I love it, so I’m going to be out there as soon as I can.”
Right offensive guard Trai Essex (ankle) went through a full practice and should be ready to play Sunday. He could start against the Saints, since Doug Legursky — who has started the past four games for Essex — committed two penalties and eventually was replaced by Ramon Foster.