PITTSBURGH – Aaron Smith might not be identified often as one of the best at his position in the NFL.
Ask anyone in the Steelers locker room, though, and they'll tell you he's not only the top 3-4 defensive end in the league, but of his generation.
There was no greater acknowledgment of the respect Smith commands as a player and person within the Pittsburgh organization than when the team did not put him on injured reserve after he tore his left triceps in a 23-22 win at Miami on Oct. 24.
The decision ultimately cost the Steelers promising linebacker Thaddeus Gibson, their fourth-round draft pick four months before Smith was hurt.
But there are tough decisions made every day in the NFL. And this was one the Steelers can live with.
"It's a sign of respect," safety Ryan Clark said. "You don't do that for just anybody — you do that for a leader. You do that for a guy who will do anything to be back. He's earned that. You don't do that for a young guy because they haven't earned that right. Aaron Smith has earned the right to be waited upon."
Considering Smith's injury was less than three months ago and the standard recovery time for such an ailment is four to six months, keeping Smith available for a theoretical return was indeed quite a compliment to pay the 12-year veteran.
And Smith returned the favor, which shouldn't come as a surprise. He didn't pack it in. He returned to the practice field the past two weeks, in fact, but was limited in participation. He is considered extremely unlikely to play Sunday when the Steelers (13-4) meet the New York Jets (13-4).
Should Pittsburgh win, though, and advance to the Super Bowl, the prospect of Smith taking the field in uniform for that game would make all the waiting — and the loss of Gibson, claimed off waivers by San Francisco — worthwhile.
"If there's even a slight opportunity or a slim chance for him to play in the Super Bowl if we advance, we'd love to have him out there because he's a difference maker," said wide receiver Hines Ward, the only Steeler who's been around longer than Smith. "I think by not putting him on IR shows what kind of player he is, shows what he means to our team and this organization. Hopefully, we can get past this one, because I would love to see Aaron play in the Super Bowl."
Such an inspirational return would not be unique on the Steelers.
In 1995, All-Pro cornerback Rod Woodson tore an ACL in the season opener. He was not placed on IR, and became the first NFL player to return to play during the same season he sustained such an injury. Woodson was active for the Super Bowl loss to Dallas.
"I've been on IR before and it's not much fun," Smith said. "To come here and still have an opportunity and a chance to get back and be part of something that's special that's going on here is a huge honor."
His teammates would be just as honored to have him back.
"He's a guy who's really good at what he does and is probably one of the best in the NFL at what he does, a guy whom everybody likes," defensive tackle Chris Hoke said. "To have him come back and playing, I think that would be a little inspirational boost."
But it isn't all about emotion and respect when it comes to a potential return by Smith. The guy can play.
"He's the best there is," said Pittsburgh's other starting defensive end, Brett Keisel, himself a Pro Bowl selection. "There's no question about it in my mind. He's the best 3-4 end in the National Football League."
"When he's healthy," he said, "it's not even close."
Smith doesn't get the notoriety of the better 4-3 pass-rushing ends because he doesn't have the eye-popping sack totals (44 in his career). But in the 3-4 set that the Steelers play, it's the outside linebackers who are relied on to pressure the quarterback. The defensive ends occupy blockers and clog the line of scrimmage, allowing the inside linebackers to stop the run.
That's where Smith excels. Want proof? Since his second season as a starter in 2001, the Steelers have ranked among the top three in the league in rushing yards allowed in nine of 10 seasons.
"No question, he's a respected guy, he's a great guy, he's a team leader," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said, "but I think the No. 1 element of reserving a place for him is we know what kind of dynamic player he is and know he's capable of helping us if given an opportunity to get back in uniform."
No wonder the Steelers are eager to do everything they can to get Smith back into uniform. Despite being one of the league's best teams over the past decade, they were only a pedestrian 7-8 (including playoffs) without him when he missed games due to injury (in 2007 and 2009).
There were worries in Pittsburgh the same thing would happen this season. Keep in mind, when Smith went down, the team was off to a 5-1 start.
That hasn't happened, of course. Sure, the Steelers lost two of their first three games without Smith, but they have run off victories in seven of eight since.
That's because Pittsburgh finally has an elite replacement. Ziggy Hood, the team's first round pick in 2009, has made his first nine career starts since Smith was injured. He has four sacks, including one in each of the past three games — the most recent coming on Baltimore's final drive in the 31-24 playoff win last Saturday.
"He's played unbelievable," Smith said. "He's really gotten better each week. I can't say enough about how he's played."
And why not? After all, Hood had an opportunity to spend his rookie year sitting back and watching Smith.
"He's great, one of the greatest 3-4 defensive ends there is, hands down, so just having a guy like that there in front of me is inspirational," Hood said. "I learned everything from him."