LATROBE, Pa. — No matter the sport, coaches often say an athlete shows the most improvement at any stage of his career between the first and second seasons.
So far, the Pittsburgh Steelers are seeing exactly that in second-year defensive end Ziggy Hood.
Hood, the Steelers' first-round draft pick in April 2009, didn't play much as a rookie while making the adjustment from a 4-3 defense at Missouri to the Steelers' not-easy-to-learn 3-4 system. Unlike many first-rounders, he wasn't expected to make an immediate impact. And he didn't.
During this Steelers training camp in 2010, he is.
"The game's starting to slow down for me," Hood said. "Everything's better. I'm learning more."
The 6-foot-3, 310-pound Hood is still playing behind Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, but he's showing the physical side the Steelers expected when they drafted him. Coach Mike Tomlin saw that on the first day of camp, when Hood easily pushed aside first-round pick Maurkice Pouncey during a blocking drill.
"He's taken the kind of jump that you'd expect a second-year first rounder to take," Tomlin said. "This guy works extremely hard and you'd be tough to find anybody who spent more time in our building during the offseason than Ziggy Hood. It's paying off for him and he's playing with a great deal of confidence."
Hood, one of the most frequent visitors to the Steelers' weight room, also is 10 pounds heavier, an asset that may allow him to fill in occasionally at nose tackle. The Steelers have rarely had someone who could play all three linemen positions in the 3-4.
Smith, who is 34, and Keisel, who will be 32 next month, welcome that versatility because it might allow them to rest for an occasional series. For now, Hood isn't starting, but he's starting to show exactly why the Steelers drafted him.
"You can see he's already made huge growth — he's going to be somebody special," Smith said. "If you're good enough, you're going to get on the field. If we get a nice rotation going, it would be nice because guys won't have to play a ton of snaps and it will keep you more fresh. And maybe that fourth quarter we won't be so tired to finish."
The Steelers' defense, the NFL's best statistically over the past five seasons, appeared to wear down last season as Smith (shoulder) and safety Troy Polamalu (left knee) missed most of the season. The injuries thinned their depth and often showed up in the fourth quarter, when the Steelers uncharacteristically lost leads five times.
Those late-in-the-game collapses — the worst of which came in an inexplicable 27-24 loss at home to Oakland — ultimately cost the Steelers (9-7) any chance of returning to the playoffs a season after they won the Super Bowl.
Now, Hood appears much better equipped to step in should a starter go down, a concern to the Steelers as their defensive line ages; nose tackle Casey Hampton will be 33 when the season starts. Due to assorted injuries, Smith and Keisel haven't played a full season together since 2006.
"Ziggy's a big, strong guy. He's a different type animal," Hampton said. "He might be the strongest player on the team. Ziggy can pretty much play on the line where he wants to. I've got that old-man strength. He's got that still-in-the-weight room strength."
Hood's lack of experience held him back last season, when the Steelers couldn't afford to give him much on-the-job training.
"He's still a young guy, and he has a ways to go technically on a few things," Tomlin said. "But we like what we see of him. He has great passion and he's displaying that daily."