Already tested by the loss of Troy Polamalu, the Steelers' defense will have to dig even deeper because it appears they will not have end Aaron Smith possibly for the rest of the season.
Smith has a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, the Post-Gazette has learned. The injury usually requires surgery that takes months to heal.
Coach Mike Tomlin issued a rather bleak prognosis of Smith's injury yesterday before he said he knew the results of further tests.
Tomlin, in his noon news conference, revealed the injury, which happened in the game Sunday at Detroit. He said "I don't know the answer to the length of time at this point, but I will acknowledge that it is potentially significant."
The Steelers' coach also pointed out that the injury still was being evaluated.
"He has a right shoulder injury, one that's being evaluated right now and potentially could be significant," Tomlin said. "We'll deal with that information as we get it, and, of course, you guys will get it from there, but, really, at this point, we're evaluating him. Potentially, he could definitely be out of this football game."
The Steelers' defense could weather the loss of Smith this week against the offensively impotent Cleveland Browns. They may not be able to do so long-term and even shorter term when they play the Minnesota Vikings and Adrian Peterson Oct. 25 at Heinz Field.
Smith, 33, has been among the best defensive ends in the league and perhaps the best playing in a 3-4 defense. His sack totals are not high because, by the mechanics of a 3-4 defense, the linebackers, not the ends, gather most of the sacks.
But Smith always is among the team leaders in quarterback pressures, and he dominates at left end, allowing others to make the plays. He and linebacker James Harrison, the NFL defensive player of the year, are tied for the team lead with 15 quarterback hurries/pressures. Smith's two sacks are second on the team to Harrison's six and the end also blocked a field-goal try.
He missed four games at the end of 2007 with a torn biceps, and the Steelers lost three of them. Without him, opponents averaged nearly 28 points a game.
This could be a chance for their first-round draft choice, Ziggy Hood, to step in and make his mark. Tomlin warned not to expect that.
"By no means is Ziggy Hood a potential replacement for Aaron Smith at this point," Tomlin said.
That does not necessarily mean that Hood cannot eventually be a replacement, just that he is not yet ready.
"He played a pretty significant portion of the game this past week," Tomlin noted. "He's a young guy that's on the come. He's got a lot of talent.
"He's not out of the oven yet, if you will. We acknowledge that. He acknowledges that. And, as long as we continue to do that, he'll move in the right direction. So, he'll continue along those lines in terms of participation."
Who replaces Smith? A gang of three that Tomlin referred to as "the usual suspects." They are Hood, Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason.
Kirschke played well last season in a reserve role, but he and Eason could not match Smith's standards at left end in the four games Smith missed in 2007. Kirschke, 35, has fought back problems in his years with the Steelers but has not missed a game in the past four seasons. He has some "tightening" in his back now, Tomlin said yesterday.
If Smith goes on injured reserve, the Steelers could make another pitch to sign rookie defensive end Sunny Harris from Carolina's practice squad. He was their sixth-round draft choice, but Carolina claimed him off waivers when the Steelers wanted to put him on their practice squad. He turned down the Steelers' offer to sign with their practice squad 10 days ago when Carolina cut him, preferring to stay with the Panthers' practice squad.
At least Troy Polamalu and Willie Parker should return to play this week. Tomlin indicated that his Pro Bowl safety and starting running back are scheduled to practice today.
"We'll let those guys do that, hopefully, without any limitations, but we'll be light on our feet and then we'll evaluate their availability later in the week. It'll really be interesting to see how they respond Thursday morning after having a day's work."
Polamalu has not played since the MCL in his left knee was sprained in the opener. Parker missed the past two games with turf toe. Polamalu practiced on a limited basis last week. Parker has not practiced since his injury.
The coach was not about to say if he would send Parker back out to start or how he would use his backs against Cleveland. Rashard Mendenhall has rushed for 242 yards and three touchdowns in the past two games.
"You know, I really hadn't pondered the division of labor to this point. I think the most important thing in that discussion right now is Willie's availability and the level of his availability. I think those answers will be provided to us as we proceed through the week and then we'll address them at the appropriate time."
Other minor injury updates: Trai Essex (unknown) and Andre Frazier (bruised thigh) will be limited in early practices.