On the Steelers: Smith regains his edge
Aaron Smith did not have an easy go of it the past three seasons. Two of the three were ruined by severe arm and shoulder injuries, he caught the swine flu and his son was diagnosed with leukemia.
About to turn 34 years old, a time when many defensive ends have retired, Smith will enter his 12th season with the Steelers undaunted by the recent trouble he has shouldered and with the optimism of a 22-year-old.
He looks at it this way: His latest injury has long healed, he feels strong and still at the top of his game, his son has done well since the diagnosis 1 1/2 years ago, and his favorite coach will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer.
Dick LeBeau's election this month to the Pro Football Hall of Fame was greeted no more heartily than it was among the Steelers' defensive players.
"We all love the man," said Smith. "You don't see many like him. It's a cliché but true; he's a unique individual. He'll always be somebody very dear to my heart."
Many describe Smith in similar terms, one of the most-respected players to ever wear their uniform. That he has not been more decorated than his one Pro Bowl is seen as a disservice among his colleagues. His disappearance from the Steelers' defense for most of last season combined with the absence of safety Troy Polamalu were the two most potent reasons they did not make the playoffs.
Smith, who has started at left end for 10 years, injured his right rotator cuff in the second game of last season, at Chicago. He played through it in three more games until Oct. 11, when he left the field for good in Detroit, his rotator cuff torn completely through.
"When they looked at it, it was a clean tear," Smith said. "There was no degeneration, like I had broken down the fibers and wore it out. They said it was just a fluke thing.
"That was a good sign, and that's why I would have a good result with the surgery. It's not like it's degenerated over time, it was just one of those weird injuries. It was just luck of the draw. I should have brought a lottery ticket or something."
In 2007, he tore his right biceps and missed the final four games, including a playoff loss. He was a dominant player again in 2008, but his son Elijah was diagnosed with leukemia that October and he played much of the season with a heavy heart.
Smith prefers to look on the bright side. Mike Tomlin interrupted a recent interview to tell Smith that the coach's daughter would not take off her "Team Elijah" shirt, and they had a good laugh about it.
They all are looking for a bounce-back season in 2010, especially for a defense that went from the most dominant in the NFL in 2008 to one that became infamous for blowing fourth-quarter leads.
"I see no reason why we can't," Smith said of a unit that should look a whole lot better with him and Polamalu in it. "For the most part, you have the same guys in the same system. I think sometimes when things don't quite go the same way, you lose that momentum. We have to get back to that momentum of being a dominant defense."
It's not as if they slipped badly on the stats board -- they ranked fifth overall in the NFL in allowing yards in 2009, but they also went from No. 1 vs. the pass to No. 16 and went from stingiest in points allowed to tied for 12th.
Smith will not admit that his absence helped lead to those sagging numbers, but his special combination as a powerful presence against the run and strength pushing the pocket make him the ideal strong-side end in a 3-4 defense. He is so good that the Steelers thought about not putting him on injured reserve at first last season, hoping he might make it back for the playoffs. Then, he caught the swine flu which delayed the surgery until Nov. 4.
"It was hard, it was really hard," Smith said of his absence. "You think, oh, you could make the difference but you just want to help. I just wanted to be there for the guys and help contribute.
"It's not fun watching football. I enjoy participating in it, but I don't enjoy watching football right now. Maybe when I'm done playing football, I'll enjoy watching football."
He hopes that day does not come anytime soon.
"Age is relative. It depends on the individual. I think some people age faster than others."
Smith said the coaches and trainers may cut back on his full participation in spring practices, which begin in April, as a precaution but that he is "absolutely" on top of his game still "and this season will tell when I go out there and perform."
"It's all how you perform," Smith said. "I don't think my body is wearing down. As far as me going out and performing, that will be the criteria, just like a guy in this second year trying to make the team. If you don't go out and do the job, you're too old."
First Published February 28, 2010 12:00 am