Smith's return encouraging to Steelers defense
Sometimes he would try to sit and watch, only to grab the remote control and turn off the game in disgust.
Or maybe Aaron Smith would play with one of his kids, using that as a diversion to avoid watching the Steelers lose a game he knows they should have won.
The Steelers weren't the same team defensively last season without star safety Troy Polamalu, but Smith's long absence with a right rotator cuff injury also was a major but oft-overlooked reason for their falloff from Super Bowl winner to non-playoff team.
While much of the focus this spring is on the player who will be missing when the season starts - suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger - the Steelers are encouraged by who is coming back.
Polamalu (left knee) is practicing after playing only three full games last season. So is Smith, a top run defender who was limited to four games before he needed season-ending shoulder surgery.
Smith, a defensive end, was originally told to sit out until training camp started, but he practiced Friday and Saturday during the Steelers' weekend minicamp.
``I'm going to practice until they force me to take days off,'' Smith said Saturday. ``I enjoy going out there and playing and doing my thing, play football. I don't like to sit around and watch.''
That's exactly what he was forced to do much of last season, when the Steelers inexplicably went from being 6-2 at midseason to finishing 9-7 and missing the playoffs.
The slide included a five-game losing streak during what was supposed to be the Steelers' easiest stretch, with games against the Chiefs, Raiders and Browns.
``It's always hard to watch your teammates. You come out here and work with these guys and sweat with these guys, to watch them go through some tough times, it's hard,'' Smith said. ``I would get frustrated sometimes, walk away, turn it off, tell my wife we're not watching and then turn it back on. Yeah, you get frustrated, but it was more the frustration I couldn't be there with them.''
After being the NFL's top defense nearly across the board in 2008 - they were No. 1 overall, against the pass and in points allowed, and No. 2 against the run - the Steelers fell off significantly last season.
Without Smith to create blitzing lines for the linebackers or Polamalu to be a disruptive presence in the secondary, the Steelers slipped to No. 16 against the pass and No. 12 in points allowed.
``A guy like that, I truly believe, is irreplaceable,'' Polamalu said, referring to the 34-year-old Smith.
That's why the Steelers are so enthused about having Polamalu and Smith back. Even if the offense is shaky early in the season as Roethlisberger serves his six-game suspension, their defense should allow them to be competitive if it returns to playing like it did in 2008.
To help make that possible, director of football operations Kevin Colbert brought back inside linebacker Larry Foote, who left to play in Detroit for one season, and traded for cornerback Bryant McFadden, who spent last season with Arizona. Both played on the Steelers' last two Super Bowl winners.
``I feel comfortable with the core group that we have, that we're capable of being an elite team,'' coach Mike Tomlin said.
If there was any benefit to missing so much of a season, Smith said, it was being able to recuperate from injuries he sustained in past seasons. A torn biceps kept him out of the final five games in 2007, plus a playoff game.
``Maybe it gave me an extra couple of years,'' Smith said.
NOTES: With Roethlisberger barred from attending, QB Byron Leftwich continued to practice with the starters. Late in the morning practice, he overthrew the team's fastest receiver, Mike Wallace, on a deep pass play. The play covered much of the length of the 80-yard practice field. ... LB James Harrison is not attending because of an uncle's funeral. ... WR Hines Ward (left hamstring) sat out.