Kovacevic: Steelers aim to do it for Aaron
GLENDALE, Ariz. — It was Saturday morning when the Steelers' players got word that Aaron Smith, one of the NFL's great defensive ends and a franchise fixture, was placed on injured reserve because of a neck injury. His season was done. Probably his career, too.
Brett Keisel, Smith's bookend these past few years, recalled a group of defensive players sitting with Smith in Pittsburgh soon afterward. They discussed Smith's injury, his future, his feelings about the franchise ... followed by a long silence.
Keisel broke it: "Are you going to come with us?"
For the game Sunday, he meant.
Smith smiled and replied: "Well, what else am I going to do• Am I going to sit around and mope• No, I'm coming."
The players exalted. And I got the distinct feeling that emotion carried into the Steelers' 32-20 throttling of the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Smith was on the team plane, in the locker room before the game and on the sideline throughout, offering advice, patting rumps, chipping in any way that a guy with a bad neck could.
Smith's neck — which coach Mike Tomlin revealed yesterday had hurt him for weeks — is now so painful it will require surgery. That made the decision for the team and the player unavoidable.
But the story won't end there: Keisel and several other players said yesterday they plan to dedicate the 2011 season to Smith.
"He's one of the greatest Steelers to ever put on a uniform," Keisel said. "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."
This made for a fine start. Yeah, Arizona made absurd plays and decisions befitting a 1-5 team. It's going to be a ton tougher with New England and Baltimore next on the schedule. But Ben Roethlisberger and his receivers performed at their highest level all season, LaMarr Woodley is back to being a full-time beast, and the team is now 5-2.
The defensive line was fine, too.
When the Steelers took the field in the nickel formation that has only two down linemen, it looked like a tribute to Smith. It wasn't, of course. It was aimed at spelling third-string nose tackle Steve McLendon — Casey Hampton and Chris Hoke were out again — and it worked well. McLendon held up well, while Keisel and Ziggy Hood helped hold Arizona to just 73 rushing yards.
Smith plans to address the media later this week, and I'm guessing he'll say he loved it all.
In the broader scope, it's not easy to quantify Smith's value.
On the field, he was so hard to keep out of the backfield that he often drew two blockers, freeing up linebackers for the sacks and the glory. He was so difficult to run against that most opponents went the other way. Incredibly, he made only one Pro Bowl appearance, even as he was selected for Sports Illustrated's All-Decade team for the 2000s.
Off the field, Smith has been a leader through word and deed. Teammates know of his torment and resolve in helping his young son Elijah battle leukemia. They saw him compete through excruciating pain. Over the past four years, they saw him rehabilitating relentlessly, usually in vain.
"A guy like that," safety Ryan Clark said, shaking his head, "should have a better ending, you know?"
The players sounded mixed as to whether Smith might return in 2012, maybe out of a willful naivete. Keisel said he didn't know. Clark said, "He's probably not going to play again."
I hope he doesn't. Smith is 35. He's had so many injuries, and — as we all could see even as we wanted to look away — he wasn't himself on the field this season.
After an especially tough game in Indianapolis last month, Smith looked at me and said quietly, "I'm tired."
I believed it.
As Clark said, the man deserves better.
If Smith sticks around, if he comes on the occasional trip like this, if he walks the sideline, if he pokes his head into defensive line meetings, the Steelers will be the stronger for it.
But it won't be the same. That was easy to see on the sideline late in the game yesterday, when Clark lay his forehead on Smith's left shoulder and told him, "I'm going to miss you, man."
When I asked Clark to explain that, his eyes welled.
"He's a guy you root for, but he's a guy we love."
Steelers vs. Cardinals 10/23/11
The Steelers defeat Arizona, 32-20, at University of Phoenix Stadium.
» Ben Roethlisberger, QB: Who needs no-huddle• Completed 24 of 38 passes for 349 yards, three TDs and no picks, spreading ball to eight receivers.
» LaMarr Woodley, LB: Two more sacks, big-time run stuffing and a hard rush to produce Steelers' first safety since 2008. The man is all the way back.
» Antonio Brown, WR: Seven catches and 102 yards both career highs. Accounted for 215 all-purpose yards, including 113 in returns. Always a threat.