Playing on the defensive line in a 3-4 defense, nearly ensures anonymity. Other than massive nose tackles, I probably can't name more than three non-Steelers defensive lineman that play in the 3-4. So it comes as no surprise that Aaron Smith is not a household name. Smith was not a big name prospect when he came out of Northern Colorado in 1999. The Steelers drafted him in the 4th round to add depth to the defensive line. But he blossomed into a starter in 2000 and didn't miss a game until he tore his bicep muscle last year.
Steelers teammates and coaches often rave about Smith, but even the most ardent fan had a tough time understanding his importance to the team until last year. Smith doesn't make a lot of tackles (60 tackles in 2008) and his sack numbers are never even close to the team lead (Smith had 5.5, Harrison had 16). But the Steelers defense, ranked #1 in 2007 and a perennial stalwart against the run, fell apart when Smith went down with an injury. The low light was when the Jacksonville Jaguars ran for 224 yards in a 29 - 22 defeat of the Steelers. That's when we started to understand. This defense wasn't amazing solely because of Troy Polamalu and the linebackers. The keystone of the defense was Aaron Smith. But, don't ask me. Smith's backup Chris Hoke said, “He’s the focal point of our run defense, no question.”
Perhaps, it explains why, after the 2006 season, Smith was re-signed to a 4 year, $25 million contract. He was the first player approached to re-sign with the Steelers, ahead of Troy Polamalu, Joey Porter, Clark Haggans, Alan Faneca, Kendall Simmons, and Dan Kreider. Historically, the Steelers refuse to give older players, such as Porter, Haggans, and Faneca, lucrative long-term deals, but the team had no qualms about re-signing the 31-year old Smith.
Richard Seymour, a defensive end playing in the 3-4 for the New England Patriots, is a perennial Pro Bowl player. Behind the Steel Curtain, a Steelers blog, wrote an article comparing Smith and Seymour. Using statistics to measure the value of Smith is an exercise in futility, but Smith and Seymour have similar statistics. So why doesn't Smith get more recognition?
Although the lack of recognition rarely bothers Smith, it bothers his teammates. Dick Lebeau rarely offers high praise about individual players, but he had this to say about Smith. “This is the best way I can say it,” said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. “I’ve been here five years since I came back, and I can count on one hand how many times I’ve seen Aaron Smith blocked. He never gets blocked, and there’s no way you can overstate that value to any defense. He gets his job done on a consistent basis.”
“You would say that, but I’m telling you,” LeBeau said. “That’s why I can never understand why he doesn’t go to the Pro Bowl every year. He doesn’t get quite as many sacks as the defensive ends in a 4-3 scheme, but I think our guys should be in competition with the defensive tackles. … To me, Aaron Smith is a shoo-in for the Pro Bowl.”
During the 2008 season, Smith's son, Elijah, was diagnosed with leukemia. Elijah Smith was diagnosed in late October with a form of leukemia that has an 80 percent survival rate. Smith, as is his way, tried to keep the story quiet, but at the Super Bowl it's tough to keep any personal story quiet.
Smith went public about his son's leukemia to try and raise awareness about the disease. Ron Cook at the post gazette wrote a story about the blood drive that he promoted to increase the number of donors from the Pittsburgh area. (Of course, it worked. Steelers fans would probably give an arm or leg for any of the players). And there have been several more articles about his situation here, here, here, and here.
Though his impact on the field is great, through this story, it became evident how important Smith is to his teammates off the field. Following Smith's first game back after finding out about Elijah's diagnosis, Chris Hoke said "Every single one of us wanted to win the game for him." Added defensive end Brett Keisel, near tears, "I love the guy so much. If I could be like him and live my life like he lives his, I'd die a happy man."
Smith might be anonymous across the country, but he is a hero to his teammates and to the fans of the black and gold.