Replacing DLE Aaron Smith, who is out indefinitely with a torn left triceps, has usually proven a difficult task for a Steelers defense that is the NFL's stoutest vs. the run.
Smith, 34, has been a key part of those run-stuffing efforts in this and past seasons for Pittsburgh. When he has left the lineup, the Steelers' run defense hasn't been the same. The Steelers have allowed 109.8 rushing yards and 4.3 yards per carry in the 17 games Smith missed since 2007. Smith missed two games with a knee injury and four games (including the playoff loss to Jacksonville) because of a torn right biceps in '07, then missed 11 games with a torn right rotator cuff in '09.
With Smith out, the Steelers will rely more heavily on Ziggy Hood, their first-round pick from a season ago. Hood is slated to start in Smith's place, with veteran Nick Eason — likely to start for injured DRE Brett Keisel in Week Eight — also likely to get more playing time.
Hood played as a reserve in the Steelers' first six games, notching three tackles.
"He had a great training camp and preseason," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said of Hood, praising his work ethic. "He has not had the kind of production that he would like thus far, but the season is still early. "
The 6-foot-3, 300-pound Hood, who has good quickness, was a defensive tackle in Missouri's 3-4 scheme. In the offseason, he told PFW he was working to hone his technique and had a better understanding of what was expected of him in the Steelers' defense.
"I tell myself, 'I know the playbook. I know what to do. I've just got to do it,' " he said in May.
Eason, an eight-year veteran, has four years of experience in the Steelers' system, with seven starts. His strength is an asset.
The Steelers did not place Smith on injured reserve in the hope he'll be able to return later in the season. In the meantime, the Steelers are left to move on without him. One league source, familiar with the Steelers' D-line and speaking on condition of anonymity, believes there won't be a huge falloff without Smith.
Tomlin's expectations for Smith's replacements are clear.
"Do I expect the guys that take his place to play like Aaron, or to make similar plays, maybe not," Tomlin said. "But they better be above the line."