MESA, Ariz. — The Steelers made the move everyone saw coming, even as we all were trying to look away.
Aaron Smith, the linchpin defensive end of the 3-4 formation that carried the franchise to another wave of NFL glory, was placed on injured reserve by the team this afternoon. That officially ends his 2011 season and, at age 35, probably his career, too. Defensive lineman Corbin Bryant was signed off the practice squad to take his place. The moves were announced Saturday afternoon, just before the team’s charter left Pittsburgh for Phoenix.
Smith played in only nine games in 2009-10 because of shoulder and triceps injuries, then was out of the lineup again this season after injuring his foot earlier this month. He was replaced last season by youngster Ziggy Hood, and that’s how it will be now, as well.
It makes for a sad, sputtering end to a brilliant career. When Smith is remembered, it will be as someone appreciated far more within the game than outside it. He wasn’t compiling big numbers or highlight-reel plays. He wasn’t rushing the quarterback. He wasn’t intercepting passes. What he did was completely shut down running games and eat up opposing linemen to free up the Steelers’ linebackers to do the rest.
By all accounts, nobody was better at that than Smith in his prime.
What will resonate most for me – at least for the short term – are two words Smith spoke to me after a rough outing a month ago in Indianapolis. Well after the game’s final snap, as much as a half-hour later, he looked up at me while putting on his shoes and said, “I’m tired.”
From the Steelers’ perspective, it’s the right move at the right time at the right position, one at which they are blessed with depth that includes Hood and first-round draft pick Cam Heyward.
Give Smith credit, too, for coming back, for trying. A class act on and off the field has been lost in Pittsburgh.