Thursday, January 06, 2011
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Aaron Smith has spent the past two days on the Steelers' practice field, wearing the same gear as his teammates and going through the same stretches and warmups. It is the first time he has done that since he sustained a torn triceps tendon in his right arm that caused him to miss the past 10 games.

But, soon as his teammates begin team drills and go through a light practice, Smith goes back to doing what he has been doing since late October -- watching.

And that might not change anytime soon, if at all.

Smith's appearance on the practice field has given hope to an imminent return, even for him. But there still are many questions and concerns from all involved -- his teammates, coaches, the organization, even the 6-foot-5, 300-pound defensive end himself -- about whether he can return any time before the Super Bowl, should the Steelers make it that far.

This much is known: Smith will not play when the Steelers open the postseason Jan. 15 in a divisional playoff game at Heinz Field. The earliest he will return is if the Steelers advance to the AFC championship game Jan. 23, though even that possibility is uncertain at this time.

But having him back on the practice field, even for just light conditioning, is a step in that direction.

"When all the information is in, the ultimate decision is up to me," Smith said Wednesday after practice. "I'll hear what everyone has to say and see what their verdict is and make an informed decision at that time."

The Steelers want to give Smith, one of their best and most-beloved players, every opportunity to show he can come back from his injury and play, even if it is in a limited capacity. But, in the end, Smith could end up like former offensive tackle Marvel Smith, who missed the final 10 games of the 2008 regular season and was placed on the injured-reserve list right before the playoffs when it was determined he would not be ready for the postseason.

"If he comes back, I don't want him to come back unless he can play," said defensive end Brett Keisel. "I don't think he should come back if he's 75 percent. He needs to get his body healthy. That's when he'll be most effective."

The Steelers have left open a roster spot for Smith, 33, since he was injured Oct. 24 in Miami. Still, they remain concerned about a recurrence of his existing injury, or even a new injury that might result from three months of game inactivity, if he plays. That would be another major setback for Smith because it would likely sideline him again until training camp.

The Steelers think Smith can play a couple more seasons and they don't want to jeopardize that possibility by having him appear in a limited role in the postseason.

"You don't want to force him back and reinjure it and start this process all over again and miss all the [offseason training]," Keisel said. "You definitely have to be careful."

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