By at least one measure, Aaron Smith is the Steelers' MVP, all due respect to Ben Roethlisberger, Willie Parker and James Farrior.
Smith is the best player on the team's best unit.
"In my opinion, he's by far our best defensive lineman," defensive end Brett Keisel was saying Sunday.
That's no knock on Casey Hampton, a three-time Pro Bowler. Keisel will tell you the Big Snack is a terrific nose tackle, the NFL's finest. It's also not excessive modesty on Keisel's part. He knows he is a very good player who's having a superb season, a significant piece of an outstanding defensive front.
It's just Smith's greatness.
"I've never seen anybody so sound," Keisel said. "Week in and week out, he grades out 95 percent on plus plays. That's almost impossible to do at this level."
Just as in every game, Smith was huge in the Steelers' 21-0 win against the Seattle Seahawks Sunday. His five tackles don't fully reflect his role in limiting Seattle star running back Shaun Alexander to 25 yards on 11 carries, Alexander's worst day in five years. Statistics never are going to show Smith's true value to the defense. That's why he is the team's most unappreciated star. Many times, he does his job perfectly by occupying a blocker or two or three so Farrior and the other linebackers can make the play. He, Keisel and Farrior are the only players among the front seven who never leave the field, no matter the defensive package.
"He's a beast," Keisel said.
To understand Smith's importance, you need to look at the Steelers' defense as a whole, then talk to those who play with him. They know the truth.
The defense has been lights out all season, a big reason the team is off to a 4-1 start, looking playoff bound. It ranks first in the NFL in total defense, second against the pass and fourth against the run. Perhaps most telling: The Steelers are giving up just 9.4 points per game, fewest in the league. If you throw out the punt-return touchdown by the Arizona Cardinals' Steve Breaston in the 21-14 loss Sept. 30, that number drops to 8.0.
As for finding players to talk about Smith? That's easy. They gladly line up to do it. They've already started to push Smith for the Pro Bowl. There was outrage in the locker room when he didn't make it the past two seasons after being selected in 2004.
"I don't think he's ever had a bad game," linebacker Larry Foote said.
"He always plays well and he plays hard," linebacker Clark Haggans said. "With Aaron, you expect it. It's never a surprise with him ... It just pushes all the other players to try to equal his energy."
Keisel is especially close to Smith. When he broke into the NFL in 2002, Smith immediately became his mentor. "I told him, 'Take my job, son.' Then I tried to help him do it," Smith said. "I taught him a lot. But now, he's become so good that he's teaching me."
Not exactly, Keisel said.
"I get better just by watching him."
Smith, in his ninth season and a starter since early in the '00 season, hasn't missed a game because of injury, playing in 130 in a row since his rookie year, including postseason games. That's remarkable considering the brutal punishment all NFL linemen take. Hampton, who is considered durable, missed the game against Seattle with a hamstring injury, another game last season with a bad hammy and sat out more than half of the '04 season with a knee injury. Keisel missed three games in '04 with a hamstring problem and all of '03 after shoulder surgery.
"Aaron is the iron man of our defense," Keisel said. "He's what all of us want to be, the guy we all try to emulate. He's our leader and we all follow him."
Are you ready for the topper?
"He's going to lead us to the Promised Land," Keisel said.
Ron Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .