By Dale Grdnic
LATROBE, Pa. — Al Woods is in his fourth NFL season, and the big defensive lineman has spent parts of all four with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
That’s not just a credit to his perseverance, but it’s also a sign that the Steelers believe he has the potential to make an impact. That should occur sooner, rather than later, for the 6-foot-4, 307-pound Woods.
And end to begin his career, Woods has worked primarily at nose tackle since spring drills with the Steelers. He passed 2012 fourth-round draft pick Alameda Ta’amu on the depth chart this year during OTAs and secured the backup role behind Steve McLendon with Ta’amu on the PUP list nursing a hamstring injury.
This is significant for a unit sorely in need of depth and its young players to take their games up a notch.
“I’m really not looking at the depth chart,” Woods said. “I’m just trying to get better every day, listening to my coaches and listening to the players ahead of me. I just want to get better as the days go by, because if I pay attention to the depth chart that could all change at the drop of a hat. So, I’m just trying to stay humble and grounded, and we’ll see what happens.
We do have a lot of talented young guys on the D-line, and we all work out together, hang out and love being around each other. We don’t have any problems. Nobody’s going to step over somebody else to get where they want to go. Here, it’s a level playing field where we’re all trying to get better as a group. And I think that’s really going to help us this season.”
Ziggy Hood, Steve McLendon and Brett Keisel compose the Steelers’ defensive line, but the backup roles are nearly all up for grabs. Cam Heyward, the team’s No. 1 pick in 2011, is on a path to replace Keisel one day. Nick Williams, a rookie seventh-round pick also is on that side, while rookie Cordian Hagans is on the left side behind Hood. First-year player Hebron Fangupo and rookie Omar Hunter are two young nose tackles. Each has position flexibility.
“We have a lot of talented players on the D-line, but some of the younger guys — like Cam and myself, we’ve got to do a good job of honing our technique and getting better,” Hood said. “We’ve worked very hard off the field, but we need that to translate onto the field.
“There’s going to come a time when we need to make splash plays. And it’s our job to do that on the D-line and provide the coaches with those types of plays that can change a game around real quick. And as long as we can do that in the realm of our defensive system, I’m all in for that.”
Hood enters his second full season as a starter after taking over for Aaron Smith, and even though he had a solid season with 17 quarterback pressures, three sacks and 40 tackles some believe he has not yet reached Smith’s production level.
“I think I played pretty good,” Hood said. “There are some areas that I need to fix and clean up, but overall I think it was more positive than anything. And I had no setbacks. My technique has gotten better throughout the years, and I’ve made a lot of improvement.”
He and Heyward were both No. 1 picks, so their play is not rated as positive or negative but in big plays. And those were limited. Hood was 10th among Steelers defenders in tackles, while 15 players ranked ahead of Heyward, who had just four pressures and 1.5 sacks in a role limited by limited production.
“I’m looking for an overall good camp, more knowledge of the playbook and transferring it on to the field,” Heyward said. “I’ve challenged myself to get better every day and leave it all on the field.
“So, when it comes to game time, I’m ready. Mostly, though, I get to see all the work that I’ve put forth pay off and see how all the young guys respond. (But) I plan on having a breakout season. I just have to execute and go in with the mindset that I have to get better every day.”
A 12-year veteran, Keisel is the elder statesman in the group, but few would believe that Hood is next with five NFL seasons under his belt. McLendon and Woods have four years each, while Heyward has three. A lot of size, experience and personality were lost when Casey Hampton wasn’t re-signed.
“It’s going to be different, but Steve’s got a great opportunity,” Keisel said. “It’s the same for some of these other young guys, too. So, the opportunity’s there. You don’t get these opportunities all the time, and you have to take advantage. The good ones will do that, but it’s not going to be easy.”
And how well they do will go a long way in determining the Steelers success on defense this season.