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Steelers D-line aging gracefully

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Monday, June 16, 2008

Steelers veteran defensive end Aaron Smith really means it when he says he and his linemates aren't too old. If anything, Smith feels like the Steelers' defensive line is too much.

Too much for opponents to handle.

"They have faith in the guys that we have -- the older guys," Smith said. "(We're) very capable."

That faith comes from the fact that the Steelers had the NFL's top-rated defense last season. Obviously, somebody was doing something right.

First, the good news:

The starting D-line remains intact and should be good to go for the 2008 opener against Houston at Heinz Field.

Now, for the rest of the story.

Those three starters -- Smith, nose tackle Casey Hampton and end Brett Keisel -- will all be 30 or older at the start of the season.

Smith is the oldest starter at 32. The primary backups -- end Travis Kirschke and nose tackle Chris Hoke -- are 33 and 32, respectively.

"Absolutely, we're comfortable with who we are," said Smith, who missed more games last season (six) than in his previous seven seasons as a starter. "We've got guys who can start at a lot of other places (yet are) backing up guys here."

Smith said he understands why the Steelers didn't select a defensive lineman in this year's draft.

"Even if you draft a young guy in this defense, it takes a couple years for him to play anyway," Smith said.

Entering his 10th season, Smith has 38 12 career sacks and plans to play as long as his body holds up.

"How old was (former defensive lineman) Kimo (von Oelhoffen) when he left here?" Smith asked. "Older than 32."

Von Oelhoffen, who just re-signed with the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday, was 35 when the Steelers opted not to re-sign him after winning Super Bowl XL.

"I think it's just a matter of keeping yourself in shape, keeping your mind useful and enjoying the game," Smith said.

Unfortunately, Smith couldn't overcome injuries in 2007. He missed two games with a knee injury early and was lost for good after suffering a biceps tear in the first quarter of a game against the Patriots Dec.9. He underwent surgery a few days later.

"I played the rest of the game with it, but it hurt," he said. "It was like getting shot every time I used it."

Smith sat out this year's minicamp and voluntary workouts. Instead, he hit the sled, performed defensive-line drills and worked out on his own as his teammates practiced. He said he probably could have practiced, but the team decided it was not worth the risk.

"It's been frustrating," said Smith, who was cheered up following the birth of daughter Emilia on June 6. "Sometimes I feel like I'm a china doll, and they're afraid. I want to play.

"I think if they wanted me to I could go now, but I think it's been more of a precaution. I should be able to go when we hit camp (July 28). I'm sure they'll ease me into it, but I don't see a reason for any setbacks."

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