Steelers Forced Into Early Glimpse Of Future; Woodley, Hood Must Step Up

Matt ShervingtonCorrespondent IIOctober 13, 2009

CINCINNATI - SEPTEMBER 27:  Aaron Smith #91 of the Pittsburgh Steelers is pictured during the NFL game against the Cincinnati Bengals at Paul Brown Stadium on September 27, 2009 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)


Imagine my absolute shock when just a few hours ago I was hit with some news that was downright horrible. News that was so bad that it ruined and overshadowed the fact that Troy Polamalu might see the football field for the first time since opening night.

What was the devastating news?

That starting defensive end Aaron Smith was out with a “potentially significant shoulder injury” according to head coach Mike Tomlin.

Now it may not seem like a big deal to the casual Steelers fan. It most certainly is not a big deal to the casual NFL fan who has already forgotten that the Steelers exist. However, to those of us that know the Steelers inside and out this is catastrophic news.

Aaron Smith is the heart and soul of the Steelers defense. Sure he doesn’t give flashy speeches and no he doesn’t rack up the statistics. Smith merely just does his job and does it better than any other 3-4 defensive end in the league except for Baltimore’s Haloti Ngata.

Want to know how important to the Steelers Aaron Smith is? He ranked 82nd  in 2008 and 68th in 2007 on my list of 100 most impactful players in the NFL. He ranked so high because Smith is – quite possibly – the league’s best run defender as evidenced by the Steelers’ inability to defend the run without him in ’07 and their ability to defend the run with Chris Hoke and Travis Kirschke starting for three games together in ’08.

You can bet that head coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau are glad that Troy Polamalu returns because if he wasn’t the Steelers would be missing two of their top six defenders. At the same time I’m pretty sure both are upset at the prospect of trying to figure out how to shift around the front three to replace – even at a basal level – Aaron Smith.

The most obvious answer is to place first round rookie draft pick Evander “Ziggy” Hood in the starting lineup as Smith’s replacement but Hood hasn’t impressed the coaching staff.  In fact Tomlin stated that “Hood isn’t ready” and as a result they will operate “through use of a committee.”

It is a guarantee that Smith will miss time but how much time is still up in the air. I have heard everything from him playing in two weeks to being out for three months due to rotator cuff surgery. Either way it’s not good given Hood’s lack of playing time and the just average play of Travis Kirschke and Nick Eason.

Hood logged three snaps in week one, two in week two, another two in week three, none in week four and another three in week five for a grand total of 10 logged snaps over the first five weeks of the season. During that time he has wracked up a grand total of one assisted tackle.

Can the Steelers really rely on a guy who has played 10 downs to replace on of the best players in the league?

Obviously Eason and Kirschke are going to have to step up but Hood should finally allow us to see a glimpse of our future in more ways than one.

Without the league’s second best 3-4 defensive end to occupy the space in front of him how will LaMarr Woodley – who has struggled in every game this season – handle a drop off in play in front of him?

Was Woodley a product of Aaron Smith occupying space and James Harrison forcing quarterbacks in his direction?

Offensively we were forced into seeing our future with Mendenhall and now we will be forced into seeing our defensive future.

Unfortunately we will find out this Sunday sooner rather than later about the future of our defense due to the most unfortunately injury to a Steeler this season.