Steelers run-stopper Smith out for season
Sunday's game against Jacksonville, a 9-4 team with the second-ranked running attack in the NFL, got a lot tougher for the Steelers after they placed defensive end Aaron Smith on injured reserve.
Smith sustained a season-ending biceps injury in the Steelers' 34-13 loss to the Patriots, and his loss is a significant blow to the No. 1 defense in the NFL.
Smith has been a linchpin of the Steelers' run defense, which is perennially one of the stingiest in the league.
Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason will fill in for Smith at left defensive end, while the Steelers signed rookie Ryan McBean from the practice squad to take Smith's spot on the 53-man roster.
Kirschke and Eason each started a game in place of Smith earlier this season when he was sidelined by a sprained knee.
"It's going to require more than one man to (hold) down Aaron's spot," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday at his weekly news conference. "I'm excited to see what those guys are capable of doing for us, but at the same time you're saddened by this for Aaron on a personal level because he's a quality person, a quality player."
Smith, who signed a five-year contract extension in February, had recorded 42 tackles and 2 1/2 sacks in 11 games this season.
Tomlin said Smith may have hurt his biceps prior to Sunday's game against New England. He played with the injury.
"He came out (of the game) a couple of times," Tomlin said, "and that was worrisome because you know that this guy doesn't come out of football games."
Smith's loss couldn't have come at a worse time for the Steelers.
The Jaguars are a physical team, and they love to pound opponents with the run.
Jacksonville has one of the better running back tandems in the league, as Fred Taylor and Maurice Jones-Drew have combined for 1,599 rushing yards and 11 rushing touchdowns this season.
The good news for the Steelers is they could get strong safety Troy Polamalu back for the 1 p.m. game.
Polamalu has missed the last three games because of a sprained knee, but he is expected to practice today.
The bad news for the Steelers is they don't have many options at defensive end this late in the season.
One option that Tomlin ruled out, at least for now, is rookie outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley.
Woodley excelled as a defensive end at University of Michigan, but he has not been able to do much of anything lately for the Steelers.
He has been battling a nagging hamstring injury that has caused the second-round draft pick to miss three of the last four games, though Woodley is expected to practice today.
"The possibility of exploring position changes (with Woodley) and stuff is really a moot point until we get him back on the field playing outside linebacker," Tomlin said.
The Steelers can clinch the AFC North title with a win Sunday and a loss by the Cleveland Browns. (They clinch at least a wild-card berth if they win one of their last three games.) The Steelers (9-4) lead the Browns (8-5) by one game in the AFC North. They also have the tiebreaker over the Browns by virtue of their two victories against Cleveland this season. Here is a look at the teams' remaining schedules:
Sunday: Jacksonville -- The Jaguars always seem to match up well with the Steelers, and this year should be not different.
Dec. 20: at St. Louis -- The Rams are 3-10, but nothing is, well, guaranteed when it comes to the Steelers playing on the road.
Dec. 30: at Baltimore -- The free-falling Ravens might summon up a big effort if they have a chance to deny the Steelers a division title.
Sunday: Buffalo -- The Bills are 7-6 and fighting for a wild-card berth in the playoffs.
Dec. 23: at Cincinnati -- The Bengals might want to play a little defense this time, as they scored 48 points and lost the last two times the in-state rivals met.
Dec. 30: San Francisco -- The 49ers might be the worst team this side of the Dolphins, and that's saying something.