The Steelers clearly lost one of their most important players this week
in Aaron Smith. He is indisputably one the best 3-4 defensive ends in
This is a particularly tough position since that individual has to both
hold firm against the run while also generating pressure on the
quarterback. Smith is a master at it.
Even in the most optimistic scenarios, it is a big blow to the defense,
but one that will be offset by the return of Troy Polamalu.
These early injuries got me wondering which players were the most irreplaceable on the Steelers, meaning which potential injuries would cause the most damage to the team's chances of repeating as both division champion and Super Bowl champion.
There are a few factors involved in trying to put this list together. The overall talent and impact of the player is a huge factor. But another factor is who could potentially replace that player on the roster.
In other words, do the Steelers have reasonable depth in place that
would help mitigate the loss of that key player?
There are some very good players who don't make this list for that
reason (including Casey Hampton and Lamarr Woodley).
So, here it goes. This is my top 10 list of potential most devastating season-ending injuries.
This one is something of a no-brainer and I'd be surprised if anyone but the usual suspects question this. Roethlisberger is Superman in a Steelers uniform and one of the top three quarterbacks in the league.
But—of equal importance—there is nobody behind him on the depth chart
that can take this team back to the promised land. While I've always
really liked Charlie Batch, I don't think he can do it.
The Steelers were in much better position to weather an injury to Big
Ben last year with Byron Leftwich on the roster and a defense that
looked nearly impenetrable. They don't have that luxury this year.
If Big Ben goes down, so do our dreams of a seventh Lombardi trophy.
The good news is that Roethlisberger is the only player I would
definitively say that about.
I don't think I would have put Troy quite this high at the beginning of the season. But, over the course of the last few weeks, I've reconsidered his overall value to the defense and the team.
Polamalu is not only the best defender on the Steelers, he is likely the
best defensive player in the league, the kind of guy that makes everyone
else around him look a whole lot better.
You cannot replace that kind of talent. Also, he doesn't exactly have the next big thing backing him up.
We may look back at the injury to Smith as the point in which the season took a permanent turn for the worse. For what it's worth, I don't expect that to happen. I think the Steelers will weather this loss.
But, Smith's impact is huge. Expect the Steelers' run defense to suffer
noticeably in his absence. He has also been one of their best and most
consistent pass rushers in the early season.
The good news is that the defense does not have to be as good as it was
last year because the offense has the potential to be much better than
the 2008-2009 version.
The other good news is that a few other players on the defense have not yet played up to their potential.
I almost put Taylor third. He is the one true shut down corner on the defense, solidly among the league's elite corners.
The Steelers could have weathered his loss last year much better than this year because they had much more depth at the top with Bryant McFadden.
But, if Taylor goes down, their pass defense will suffer considerably. William Gay is plenty good, but they are thin after that.
Deshea Townsend's best days are behind him and he would likely struggle
if thrust back into a starting role, and Keiwan Ratliff has been a disappointment so far.
Miller is one of the most underrated players on the team. He is great as both a run blocker and pass catcher and has become one of Roethlisberger's most reliable targets.
His excellence as a pass catcher makes it much more difficult to defend
the Steelers' pass game. I think the loss of Miller, at this point, would hurt more than the loss of any of the receivers.
Harrison was the NFL's 2008 defensive player of the year and last week's defensive player of the week. So, why is he all the way down at the sixth position?
Only because the Steelers have more depth at outside linebacker than at
the positions ahead of him on this list.
But, with Smith now out, the loss of Harrison would be devastating. The two of them have combined for most of the quarterback pressure in the early going of the season.
The Steelers have made Starks a very rich man over the last couple years, offering him a salary that, in line with the transition and franchise tags, would make Bill Gates and Warren Buffet jealous.
This caused some confusion for plenty of fans who have not been particularly impressed with his play.
Why? Because the options behind him are a whole lot worse. I think Starks is their most improved offensive lineman. His loss would hurt badly and would significantly improve the chances of also losing Big Ben.
I'm grudgingly coming around on Starks and am glad he is still a Steeler, something I wasn't quite ready to say when the Steelers threw the franchise tag at him earlier this year.
Two at the same position? Absolutely. The loss of Gay would not hurt as much as the loss of Taylor.
But, it would cause a ripple effect throughout a not terribly deep secondary, providing some inviting targets for opposing offenses, particularly if the pass rush does not get a little more consistent.
Gay is looking more and more like the steal of the 2007 Draft, when he was grabbed by the Steelers in the fifth round.
They have three starters on their defense from that draft (Lamarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons), and a fourth defensive player, Ryan McBean, starting for the Broncos. They also grabbed their punter, Daniel Sepulveda, in that draft.
While they say it takes five years to grade a draft, you can already mark that one down as an A.
This was a tough call between Ward and Santonio Holmes. I thought Holmes would pass Ward this year as the Steelers' top receiver.
But, Holmes has been inconsistent and underperformed in the early going.
I still trust Ward a bit more than Holmes.
The Steelers effectively weathered the loss of Ward through most of the playoffs last year. His loss would hurt, but they could survive it, especially with the emergence of Mike Wallace as a real threat.
Clark is not only the human hammer, but an underrated pass defender. His dependability in the deep secondary gives the Steelers more flexibility to unleash Polamalu in creative ways.
The Denver Broncos game bears watching. If Clark cannot play in that
game due to concerns about the altitude, it could hurt the Steelers' chances against what is looking like a very good, if not slightly overrated, team.
Still, I hope Clark elects not to play that week—better to risk a loss than your life.
It is still a little early to tell definitively, but Mendenhall looks like he could be the real deal. He has added another dimension to the offense that has been missing.
If he can stay healthy, that would be a definite plus and give the Steelers something that they completely lacked last year: a competent running game.
So, there you have it, my anti-injury wish list. These are the players I don't want to see get hurt because it would have the biggest impact on the Steelers.
One of these players is now gone for the season. Let's hope his is the last injury of that severity.