One man Steelers can't do without
Monday, August 25, 2008
By Ron Cook, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana / Post-Gazette
http://www.post-gazette.com/pg/08238/906809-66.stm

It might have been after Jacksonville Jaguars running backs Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew shredded the Steelers' defense for 216 yards in a December loss.

Or maybe it was after that same troubled defense couldn't hold a late lead in the playoff loss to the Jaguars in January.

The exact date isn't important.

The conversation is.

"It's funny," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith remembered telling his wife. "Ever since I got hurt, I've become a lot better player."

It really is true what they say, that we often don't appreciate the finer things in life until they are taken away.

So it was for the Steelers and their fans after Smith went out with a torn right biceps Dec. 9 on a totally miserable New England day.

It was then everybody learned just how critical Smith is to the team.

Actually, the Steelers had a pretty good idea about it all along. That's why coach Mike Tomlin was sick when he announced Smith was done for the season two days after the 34-13 loss in New England. He said Smith wasn't just one of his best defensive players, but one of his best players, period. He also said no one man could replace Smith.

Taylor and Jones-Drew proved the point rather painfully. So did Baltimore's third-teamer Musa Smith and fourth-stringer Cory Ross, who ran for a combined 155 yards in the Ravens' 27-21 win Dec. 30. And Jacksonville quarterback David Garrard, whose 32-yard run on fourth-and-2 set up the deciding field goal in the Jaguars' 31-29 playoff win.

"Who knows what would have happened if I had been in there? Maybe I would have been the guy who missed the tackle [on Garrard's run]," Smith said.

"I thought Travis [Kirschke] did a great job filling in for me. Look at the film. He did a great job. I can't say that I would have done better or made more plays than he did."

Humility is a wonderful quality, isn't it?

But you know better now in Smith's case.

Maybe you didn't fully realize Smith's value before his injury. It's not as if he plays a glamorous position. A defensive end in the Steelers' 3-4 defense isn't going to get a lot of sacks or quarterback pressures.

But you know the truth after watching the defense collapse without Smith in the Steelers' 1-3 limp to season's end. He is every bit as important as team MVP James Harrison and Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.

That was evident again Saturday night in the exhibition game at Minnesota. Smith sacked quarterback Gus Frerotte on the Vikings' first play. Later in the first quarter, he stopped running back Chester Taylor for no gain on consecutive plays. The Vikings managed just one touchdown -- a relatively cheap one at that, set up by Rashard Mendenhall's fumble at the Steelers' 45 -- in two quarters against the Steelers' first-team defense.

Smith's performance helped ease the concerns about the defense, which did not play well in the first two exhibition games. It also eased the fears that the defensive line is getting too old to be productive.

"The 30s now are the new 20s. Don't you know that?" Smith asked, fairly giggling.

What?

You expected the man to say he's washed up at 32?

Smith clearly has plenty of great football left -- as long as he stays healthy. That's the one legitimate worry about a player his age. Smith never missed a game because of injury -- playing in 134 in a row -- before a sprained left knee forced him to sit out two games midway through last season. That was bad enough, but then the biceps tear happened.

Asking Smith if he's concerned about his body maybe starting to break down seemed like a fair question.

"I don't think I'm at that point yet," he said, "but we'll see."

Smith figures he's already in bonus time, anyway.

"I've been truly blessed. When I first came into the league, I was hoping to play maybe two years and get a head start in life. I never thought I'd get this far."

A starter since 2000. A Pro Bowl after the 2004 season. A Super Bowl in 2005. A five-year, $24.5 million contract -- including an $8 million signing bonus -- in 2007.

And, now, a 10th NFL season.

"A lot of people have told me the team really missed me last season," Smith said. "Heaven forbid I come back and stink."

Or get hurt again.
Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com.