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Steelers' Smith eager to make up for lost time

David Copperfield has nothing on the magic trick that Aaron Smith turned last season.

The Steelers defensive end somehow became a better player without playing a single down.

Smith, to be sure, couldn't help but watch with amusement as his stature grew with each game that he missed.

"I was like Superman," he said.

Smith hasn't been spotted wearing a cape at St. Vincent. The sight of him practicing is a welcome one to his teammates, coaches and especially the fans who all but turned him into a super hero after he went down with a season-ending arm injury last December.

Smith said he has fully recovered from the torn bicep he suffered in a 34-13 loss to the Patriots, and his return at left defensive end should go a long way toward curing what ailed the Steelers' defense at the end of the 2007 season.

Consider that the 71.7 rushing yards (average) the Steelers allowed in the 11 games Smith played last season would have ranked first in the NFL; the 130.7 rushing yards they gave up in the six games he missed would have ranked 28th out of 32 teams.

There were other factors as to why the Steelers became surprisingly soft against the run at the end of the 2007 season. None, however, loomed larger than the absence of Smith, who prior to last season had not missed a game since 1999.

"Aaron Smith is an All-Pro player," Steelers defensive line coach John Mitchell said. "He's one of the best defensive linemen in the National Football League. If you would ask me what player in this league I would rather have besides Aaron Smith it would be Aaron Smith."

That is not surprising since last season showed that there may not be a more indispensable player on the Steelers' defense.

Smith is ninth on the Steelers' all-time sack list with 36, and the 6-foot-5, 298-pounder is even more valuable as a run stopper.

His strength, balance and adroit use of his hands make him difficult to dislodge from his position on the defensive line. That frees up the Steelers linebackers to make plays close to the line of scrimmage and makes it hard for opposing teams to gain traction when it comes to their running game.

That the 32-year-old Smith has made just one Pro Bowl in nine NFL seasons is a reflection of the system in which he plays more than anything else.

Ends in a 3-4 defense do not put up the kind of numbers that ends in a 4-3 defense do, particularly when it comes to sacks. As such, Smith is vastly underrated, something Bengals offensive tackle Willie Anderson said last season in explaining why he votes for Smith for the Pro Bowl almost every year.

"The thing about (Smith) is he never slows down," Steelers nose tackle Chris Hoke said of Smith. "He never lets anyone dictate the tempo of how he wants to go. That's why he plays so well.

"He's been playing this 3-4 defense longer than any of us, so we look to him, and he's the glue of that defensive line."

Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason found that out the hard way last season. The two veterans filled in for Smith after he went down, and they became convenient targets when the Steelers' run defense faltered.

Smith said the criticism they received was "unfair." The Steelers apparently agreed since they re-signed Kirschke and Eason and did not address their defensive line through free agency or the NFL Draft.

The Steelers' perceived lack of quality depth at defensive end won't be an issue if the starters, and Smith in particular, stay healthy.

They are at least off to a promising start in that regard.

"The rest of my body is more sore than the injury," Smith said, "so I think I'm progressing along nicely."

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