Cook: Steelers' Smith hopeful for return

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Steelers injured defensive end Aaron Smith took his four kids out trick-or-treating Sunday night. He thought he saw every ghoulish creature imaginable. Then, he went home, turned on his television and saw a real horror show, live from the Louisiana Superdome: The Steelers' 20-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

"It's hard to watch when things aren't going well," Smith said over the telephone from his North Hills home before the game. "You want to be there to help your guys. It kills you when you can't be there."

Watching is not going to be any easier for Smith Monday night when the Steelers play the Cincinnati Bengals on the road or the following Sunday night when they have the New England Patriots at Heinz Field or in any of the several games ahead. Doctors told him he would be out eight to nine weeks when they did surgery eight days ago to repair his partially torn left triceps muscle, a procedure that he said "went better than expected because it wasn't a total tear."

The best-case scenario would have Smith back for the home game against the New York Jets Dec. 19 or perhaps the home game against the Carolina Panthers four days later. Worst case -- this is a horrible thought -- he could be finished as an NFL player.

"It's a little premature to put me in the grave," Smith said.

Smith is determined to do the rehab to get back this season.

"You give me just a blade of grass, I'll take my chances and see what happens," he said.

Of course, the road back won't be easy, especially at his age, 34. But the Steelers believe in him. They know how valuable he is to their defense. They went 1-2 down the stretch without him in 2007 and lost their first playoff game to the Jacksonville Jaguars. They went 6-5 without him last season and didn't make the playoffs. They are 0-1 without him this season.

At this point, the Steelers are willing to hold a roster spot for Smith in the hopes he'll be able to give the team a big lift -- both on the field and emotionally -- at playoff time. Their belief in him cost them promising rookie linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, who was claimed by San Francisco Monday. The Steelers had to cut Gibson, their fourth-round draft choice, to make room for defensive tackle Steve McLendon, who was promoted from the practice squad to add depth on the defensive line.

Smith is worth it.

"Anytime he's not in there, it kills us," nose tackle Casey Hampton said before the loss in New Orleans.

Smith's replacement, Ziggy Hood, was credited with one assisted tackle against the Saints, as was defensive end Nick Eason, who played in place of injured starter Brett Keisel (hamstring). Hood is a good, young player on the rise, and Eason is a solid veteran, and both did their part to help hold the Saints to 30 rushing yards.

But so is Smith. His teammates will tell you there's not a better 3-4 defensive end in the NFL. That's why they were so sick when he was hurt against the Miami Dolphins Oct. 24 after working so hard to come back from a torn right rotator cuff injury early last season.

"I love those guys," Smith said. "I mean, I love the game. That's the reason I play it. But I really love playing with those guys."

The problem is this is the third time in four seasons that Smith has had a major arm injury. For a long time, he was one of the Steelers' ironmen, playing in 134 consecutive games before missing two with a sprained knee in '07. But there was that rotator cuff tear last season and a torn right biceps muscle late in the '07 season. It's nice to think the Steelers will want Smith back next season -- they won the Super Bowl after the '08 season when he played every game -- but there are no guarantees with a player his age, his recent injury history and his high salary. He will be in the final year of his five-year, $24.5 million contract in 2011.

"Absolutely, I understand this is a business, and they have to do what they think is right for the team," Smith said. "I've been around long enough to know how it works. You have friends in this game and relationships with people, but it still is a business."

Smith wouldn't speculate about what the Steelers might do, nor would he commit to playing next season. "I've talked to my wife about it, but it's too early to make that choice right now. We'll see what happens. My only concern is to get healthy and come back this season and play some football."

I think back to something Smith said after he fought back from the biceps injury to have a great season in '08.

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

Two years later, after 12 seasons in the NFL ...

"I've been on borrowed time for a long time," Smith said the other night.

That doesn't mean it should end now for Smith, not on a routine running play during an October game in Miami, not in pain, not in despair with the feeling that he let his teammates down.

A more appropriate ending for the man would be in Super Bowl XLV in Dallas Feb. 7.

I'm just guessing, but I believe Smith could find the strength in those arms to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

Ron Cook: . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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