In this Sunday's narrow victory over the Miami Dolphins, the Steelers lost Aaron Smith, perhaps the most underrated defensive end in the league, to a torn triceps. Smith has been a fixture in Pittsburgh's defensive front for quite some time; from 2000 to 2006, he started all 112 regular season games for the Steelers, displaying remarkable durability for a guy who makes his living hitting and being hit.
Unfortunately, age has begun to catch up with Smith, who entered this season, his twelfth in the league, at 34. From 2007 to 2009, he averaged under 11 starts per season, falling victim to a medley of injuries that would make the guy from Operation cringe: bicep tears, knee tweaks, torn rotator cuffs, and now a blown-out triceps.
Smith had surgery to repair the tendon this Monday. While triceps tears are typically of the season-ending variety, head coach Mike Tomlin sounded relatively optimistic about the situation in his weekly press conference:
"At this point, we intend to wait this out. [Smith is] a quality player. If there's hope for his return, we will be hopeful...He is going to be out an extended period of time and...we intend to wait that out. Aaron is a quality player, a veteran leader for us. If there is hope for his return, then of course we are going to be hopeful for as long as we possibly can...We'll just see how it goes."
Either way, the loss of Smith is a huge blow Pittsburgh's 3-4 defense. It speaks to his worth that the team hasn't (yet) placed him on injured reserve in order to free up a roster spot. The only time I can remember the team doing that with such a severe injury was with Rod Woodson in 1995, when the cornerback returned from early-season knee surgery to play in the Super Bowl.
Smith's injuries last year - along with injuries to All-World safety Troy Polamalu, an even more important player - led to numerous collapses from a unit that could have been dominant. And with the Steelers currently ranked fourth in the league in total defense (299.3 ypg), first against the run (63.7 ypg), first in scoring defense (13.7 ppg), and holding their opponents to an impressive 36% success rate on third downs, it seems like there's nowhere for Pittsburgh's defense to go but down.
That seems doubly true when you consider that the Steelers will line up against the Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints, a team that boasts the fifth-best passing offense in the league (279.3 ypg). Not a fun way to spend your Halloween evening. (I'm sure Casey Hampton would rather be trick-or-treating. Zing!)
Then again, it's rare for a team to have a former first-round pick waiting in the wings, specifically for a situation like this. And yet that's exactly what Pittsburgh has: in 2009, they drafted Ziggy Hood, a former defensive tackle at the University of Missouri, 32nd overall.
Depth like that is exactly the kind of personnel luxury that has distinguished the consistently successful Steelers from most of the variance-heavy NFL. The front office's foresight has actually been kind of ridiculous; the Steelers almost always have a superstar-in-the-making ready to plug right into the lineup once a veteran gets hurt or loses a step. It seems like the only thing general manager Kevin Colbert hasn't predicted over the last decade was the housing bubble.
Hood, 23, garnered the praise of his coaches, fans, and journalists alike at the team's training camp this August. However, that hype hasn't translated into much production in the regular season thus far. Hood was limited by an ankle injury early in the season, and has had only limited snaps behind Smith and Brett Keisel. Also, production from 3-4 defensive ends usually doesn't show up on the stat sheet. Smith, for instance, only has 15 tackles through six games. In limited action, Hood has three.
So it's hard to know what to expect from the youngster. After all, it's only his second season, and he's still learning the ins and outs of transitioning from a 4-3 defensive tackle to his new role in Dick LeBeau's defense. With Keisel still ailing from a hamstring injury, there's a chance that Hood and Nick Eason - who have just nine NFL starts between them - both start at defensive end this week. However it shakes out, Tomlin sounds hopeful about Hood's prospects:
"He's got a big-time opportunity...this Sunday. Knowing him, I know he will do what's necessary in the process."
Let's hope Tomlin is right.