It’s no secret that the Steelers long time defensive lineman hasn’t been the same since 2008, that’s the last time he was able to play in all 16 games. He finished that year with 60 Tackles, 5.5 Sacks, and 4 Passes Defensed.
Since then he’s only played in 15 games since , fighting various injuries and father time (Smith will be 36 this coming April). Up until recent history, #91 was well known as one of the toughest defensive lineman and probably the most underrated in recent history. His ability to diagnose a play before the snap and occupy more than 1 blocker made him a nightmare for opposing offensive lines and the pride of Dick Lebeau’s unit. Originally drafted out of Northern Colorado by Bill Cowher, Smith was a guy you could always count on to be there year in and year out. Other than his rookie year in 1999 when he played in 6 games, Smith appeared in every regular season game from 2000-2008 except for 2007 when he played in 11.
He never had the huge sack numbers that other big name lineman of his era were able to rack up, but that’s the nature of the beast playing in a 34 scheme like the Steelers run. Smith is one of those “lunch bucket” type of players that the Steelers love; show up to work, do your job, be a good teammate, make an impact on the field and go on about your business.
Smith is one of those players that is likely a candidate to be released this offseason as the team tries to get in compliance with the salary cap but also get younger on the defensive line. In 2011 his base salary was $4.5 million but the team restructured that deal and added another year to it so they could free up space at the time. As much as every fan in the Steeler Nation appreciates what Smith has done, it seems like the time is at hand to let the legendary man of steel ride off into the sunset.
Even though Smith hasn’t been on the field much these last few years he’s certainly been able to help out the younger players learn their craft as a 34 defensive lineman. You’d be hard pressed to find a better teacher than a guy who’s well known as one of the best ever at his position in Pittsburgh. His ability to use leverage and power to maximize the effectiveness on the line isn’t exactly easy even though he made it look that way for so long.
The concerted effort by the Steelers to get younger on the line is already in full swing. Last season they drafted Ohio State’s Cam Heyward and Ziggy Hood in 2009. That trend will need to continue as NT Casey Hampton recovers from ACL surgery and carries a high cap number this year (base salary of $4.89 million plus his signing bonus of $2,166,667). The Steelers have yet to make a move on restructuring Hampton’s deal but that seems inevitable at this point; either that or just release him. No matter what depth on the defensive line is an issue that will be addressed this offseason, most likely in the draft. Yet another sign that Smith’s days are numbered.
GM Kevin Colbert said in a recent interview with KDKA that Aaron is still in the evaluating phase of his recovery; that he still comes into the facility to get checked out regularly. He made no indication on how they will proceed over the next few weeks with Smith’s contract, nor has Aaron himself said anything about his intentions recently. Aaron said last year that the Steelers will have to tell him when it’s time to leave because he’ll always feel like he can play. It’s hard to argue with a man who’s had so much success throughout his career but in the coming weeks, Dick Lebeau and Mike Tomlin might very well have to finally have that talk with him.
If indeed it is time to say goodbye to him as it appears, it’s a career well worth every accolade you can bestow on him as one of the best players ever to wear a Steeler uniform.