Smith going home to wreck dreams

PITTSBURGH – Aaron Smith grew up in Colorado Springs and attended the University of Northern Colorado, but as a kid he hated the Denver Broncos.

A fan of wide receiver Steve Largent, Smith went so far as to root for the rival Seattle Seahawks.

"I was the anti-Bronco guy in my house," said the Pittsburgh Steelers' left defensive end. "Everybody else loved them."

It makes Sunday's showdown kind of fitting for Smith, who three weeks ago looked at the mountain that no one's ever climbed and asked "Why not us?"

"Someone's got to do it sometime, so why not us this time?" Smith said yesterday.

The Steelers are trying to become the first team to win a Super Bowl after playing three playoff games on the road. Denver is the third trip.

"We'll just see," Smith said. "I'll take my chances. Whether we go on the road or play at home, I'll take my chances with this team right now."

Smith was a junior in college the year the Broncos won their first Super Bowl. It was the year the Broncos won at Three Rivers Stadium in the AFC title game.

The Broncos trained at UNC the previous summer, and Smith was part of the security detail. He watched the drills at afternoon practice and dealt with the public afterwards.

"I was the guy who said get back from the ropes, sorry no autographs today."

Did Smith learn anything that summer?

"That some people will do anything, anyhow or anywhere just to get an autograph."

Smith was in the middle of Bronco-mania but wasn't swept up in it. And he could barely get a read on their legendary quarterback.

"Elway didn't practice at all," he said. "He threw seven-on-seven. That was it. I understand that now, but back then I was very surprised because he didn't do anything."

Elway may have been in his twilight at the time, but he was the driving force behind the Broncos' title runs in 1997 and 1998. You could count on Elway like you could count on the thin air sucking the breath out of visiting players.

Smith laughs at the latter notion.

"The thin air is a myth," he said. "If you were there about a week, you'd notice the difference because your body's had time to feel the full-time effects of the altitude. But we're only going to be there 24 to 36 hours."

What about 300-pound defensive linemen? Won't they be gasping for air by the fourth quarter?

"I get just as tired in the fourth quarter around here as I used to in college," he said. "And if you're winning the game, you're not going to be tired."

Elway, of course, was no myth. He WAS the Broncos, who've won only one playoff game since Elway retired. That came last week, when quarterback Jake Plummer directed the Broncos past the New England Patriots.

Hardly on the same plane as Elway, Plummer's enjoying the best year of an average career. His career passer rating is 75.1. For comparison's sake, Kordell Stewart's was 72.3.

The Broncos might be playing for another trip to the Super Bowl, but their quarterback isn't scaring anyone.

"The key is, I think, stopping the run," Smith said. "You can't let a ball-control offense start moving the ball, let them start running boots off the ball, play-action. You've got to stop that run and then try and make Plummer stay in the pocket and beat you."

That's certainly not as scary a proposition as making Elway beat you. Or even Peyton Manning.

For Smith and his two-gapping linemates, stopping the run is always the priority. They're first in the NFL in fewest yards allowed per carry (3.4) and last week held Edgerrin James to 56 yards rushing.

While the Broncos rank second in rushing yards per game, they've done so with the non-descript tandem of Mike Anderson and Tatum Bell. They've had their moments this season, but neither will ever be confused with Edgerrin James.

"They're a good team, though," Smith warns. "I like your thinking; that's mine too. But …"

And his voice trailed off. Broncos fan or not, Smith is going home, where manners still count.


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