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Ziggy Hood, Cameron Heyward vie for Steelers roles

Training camp finally is here. They allow tackling there and everything. Around the League will count down the top 30 position battles to watch throughout the preseason.

No. 6: Pittsburgh Steelers defensive end

With the Steelers moving on from Aaron Smith this offseason, recent first-round draft picks Ziggy Hood and Cameron Heyward are expected to compete for the starting job opposite longtime veteran Brett Keisel.

Hood, who arrived on the scene in 2009, played sparingly (22.12 percent of 1,008 defensive snaps, according to official playing-time documents) in 16 games as a rookie before starting 23 of 32 games over the past two seasons. Wood played in over 63 percent of the snaps in 2010, and he eclipsed 80 percent last season. Defensive ends in Pittsburgh tend to not produce much in terms of statistics -- that's what those linebackers are for -- but Hood has posted a respectable 51 tackles and 4.5 sacks during that stretch.

Knowing that Keisel's time in the NFL was not nearly as long as his beard, the Steelers used the No. 31 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft on Heyward, a 6-foot-5, 294-pounder from Ohio State. Heyward got the typical Steelers rookie redshirt, dressing for all 16 games and picking up 11 tackles and a sack while playing in 19.42 percent of the defensive snaps. Heyward was on the field for nearly 42 percent of the Steelers' special teams snaps and blocked a 33-yard field goal attempt in a 35-7 win over the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 13.

Projected Winner(s): Hood has done an OK job as an injury replacement for Smith, and with all the turnover on defense it would not be a surprise to see the Steelers keep Hood in the starting lineup and rotating Heyward off the bench. That said, Keisel turns 34 in September and has not played a full season since 2007, so Heyward is to make likely his first NFL start at some point this season.

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