The Pittsburgh Steelers announced yesterday that veteran defensive end Aaron Smith would be placed on injured reserve as he required season-ending neck surgery. Smith has been injured multiple times over the course of the past couple seasons, including three stints on injured reserve in three consecutive years and four of the last five seasons. The roster move will certainly impact the Steelers defensive front depth in the short-term, but may have a greater implications for Dick Lebeau's 3-4 scheme in the long-term.
In the short-run the Steelers have to deal with the New England Patriots and the Baltimore Ravens through the next two weeks, both games where winning in the trenches will be vital. Ziggy Hood has been named starter at Smith's defensive end position. The 2009 first-round pick has stepped since Smith was injured in Houston against the Texans, filling in across the defensive line and consistently making plays in the backfield.
In the long-run, the Steelers players may have lined up with Smith for the last time. The injury to Smith's neck had been lingering for some time now but was perceived as just another bump and bruise of professional football. It was not until he hurt an ankle and was forced to miss action that he noticed the neck was not improving. Team doctors determined that Smith's neck required surgery and could lead to catastrophic injury if not dealt with immediately.
When healthy, Smith was a staple of the Steelers' defensive 3-4 success over the last 12 1/2 seasons. Some analysts and sports writers have even gone as far as to say they consider Smith to be the best 3-4 defensive end in team history. Not a far stretch by any imagination considering his 453 career tackles and 44 sacks. In an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune Review, teammate and fellow defensive end Brett Keisel said, "He's one of the greatest Steelers to ever put on a uniform. There aren't a lot of guys who have played and battled like he has. Everyone looks up to that. We love him. We respect him. The least we can do is go out and win games for him."
And win games they shall. It seems to be a trait of this franchise, rising to the occasion in tough times when beloved veterans are nearing the end of their careers. Just a couple years ago the team overcame a wildcard playoff birth to make a run at the Super Bowl in former Steelers great Jerome Bettis' home town. What reason is there to foresee a different outcome against the will of another gutsy Steelers team.
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