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Old 08-13-2009, 07:36 AM   #1
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Default First-rounder Hood learning intricacies of Steelers' 3-4 defense

First-rounder Hood learning intricacies of Steelers' 3-4 defense
By Scott Brown
Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ziggy Hood basked in the glow of being a first-round NFL draft pick for less than a week.

Then, reality flattened him like a pancake block during his initial practice as a Steeler. The former Missouri star was just like any other rookie.

"I had no clue," Hood recalled of his first day at minicamp in May. "My technique was horrible."

Making the transition from college to the NFL is tough for just about every player. It can be a quantum leap for defensive ends such as Hood because of the complexity of the Steelers' defense -- as well as the fact that they, in a sense, have to discard about everything they learned in college and start over.

Hood has gotten rave reviews for the transition he has made from a tackle in a 4-3 defense at Missouri to an end in a 3-4 from his mentor, Aaron Smith. And the 6-foot-3, 300-pound Hood will get a chance to show how much progress he has made today, when the Steelers host the Arizona Cardinals in the preseason opener for both teams.

Perhaps a logical starting point for the ongoing education of Hood is the change in mentality he has had to embrace.

In 4-3 defenses, which are played overwhelmingly at the college level, tackles are usually poised like a sprinter to burst out of their three-point stance since they are trying to attack a gap. In 3-4 alignments, ends are in a more parallel stance since they are responsible for multiple gaps.

"Here, you're trying to occupy guys, and you're hand-fighting them and getting on guys," said Smith, who is considered one of the NFL's top 3-4 defensive ends. "In a 4-3, you're just really trying to penetrate and get upfield and avoid those guys and disrupt the defense, so it's two totally different concepts."

Just as important as staying low and maintaining a good base with proper footwork is hand use.

Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said one of the most difficult adjustments for first-year defensive ends is perhaps his cardinal rule: moving their hands first when the ball is snapped.

When done successfully, this usually allows them to establish control over an offensive lineman.

It can take several years to master because players who were tackles in college, such as Hood, frequently led with their shoulder after the ball had been snapped.

Mitchell has repeatedly told Hood that won't work in the NFL because he simply can't rely on overpowering offensive linemen at this level.

"You want to get your hands inside because this league, if my hands are outside of you, that offensive guard or tackle's hand is going to be inside of you, and he's going to hold you, and they're not going to call holding," Mitchell said. "I tell (players), 'Don't complain to me about getting held. You get your hands inside.' The guy who gets his hands inside first is going to win 95 percent of the time."

Veteran defensive end Brett Keisel can attest to how difficult the concept is to grasp.

When he made the transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 defense, Keisel said, he would often be so preoccupied about moving his hands first that he would drop his head at the snap of the ball. That, he added, made it easy for an offensive lineman to slap his helmet with a meaty paw and push him to the ground.

Keisel said he got so frustrated at times during his rookie season in 2002 that Smith would pull him aside after practice and say, "Here, let me show you a couple of things."

Smith has been offering those same pointers to Hood, as well as advice such as this: The adjustment he's making comes not only with time but also with countless repetitions in practice.

"Now it's getting better," Hood said of his technique. "I'm not saying it's the greatest in the world, but it's improving a whole lot."

Smith is not the only one who apparently agrees. Former Steelers defensive tackle Joe Greene, who works in the team's scouting department, spent the first week of training camp at St. Vincent. When asked about his impressions of Hood, the Pro Football Hall of Famer said, "I think we made a good choice."

Scott Brown can be reached at sbrown@tribweb.com or 412-481-5432.
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