PITTSBURGH (AP) The Pittsburgh Steelers gain more appreciation for defensive end Aaron Smith’s play whenever he misses a game due to injury.
Unfortunately for the Steelers, and for Smith, that’s becoming a regular occurrence.
Smith is out indefinitely after needing surgery to repair a torn triceps tendon in his left arm. Such injuries typically are season-ending, but the Steelers (5-1) plan to wait and see how quickly Smith recovers before deciding whether to place him on the injured reserve list.
“He’s going to be out an extended period of time and, at this juncture, we intend to wait that out,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “If there’s hope for his return then, of course, we’re going to be hopeful as long as we possibly can.”
While James Harrison makes the headlines and Troy Polamalu regularly makes the Pro Bowl, it’s Smith who is often cited by teammates as being the most valuable player on a defense that has allowed only a single 100-yard rusher in 40 games.
Not only is the 6-foot-5, 298-pound Smith difficult to run against, the push he creates in pass-rushing situations – even while regularly being double-teamed by 300-pound linemen – opens up room for Harrison and LaMarr Woodley to get to the quarterback.
What worries the Steelers is this is the 34-year-old Smith’s third significant injury in four seasons. He missed the final 11 games of last season with a torn right rotator cuff, and the Steelers lost five of those. He also sat out the final four games in 2007, including a playoff game, and the Steelers lost all but one.
Statistics also show how valuable Smith is. Last season, the Steelers were allowing an average of 71 yards rushing per game until he was hurt. After that, the average climbed to nearly 100 yards per game, even as opponents also threw with more success against a defense that repeatedly failed to hold leads in the fourth quarter.
This season, the Steelers are giving up a league-low average of 63.7 yards rushing per game.
That’s why the Steelers are willing to keep a roster spot open, even if it turns out an injury that occurred during the third quarter of a 23-22 victory at Miami on Sunday sidelines him the rest of the season.
With Brett Keisel (hamstring) also injured, the Steelers might start both of their backup defensive ends, Nick Eason and Ziggy Hood, against the Saints (4-3) on Sunday night. They also don’t know yet whether Woodley (hamstring) will be ready to play.
Regardless, Tomlin said the Steelers probably won’t look for a backup defensive end outside of the organization. Steve McLendon, who has played in two games, could be promoted from the practice squad.
“You know the philosophy that we buy into, as far as the standard being the standard, and what we mean by that is those who step in have to play winning football,” Tomlin said. “There are no excuses. Do I expect the guys that take his place to play like Aaron? Or to make similar plays? Maybe not, but they’d better be above the line.”
Hood, the Steelers’ first-round pick in 2009, had a strong training camp that hasn’t carried over into the season.
“He’s got a big-time opportunity to work on that this weekend,” Tomlin said. “Knowing him, I know he will do what’s necessary.”