You could not miss him on any play, a wild man among professionals. Sure, Kendrell Bell can give you that flash and make you jump out of your seat. But for my money, Aaron Smith was my favorite Steeler on the field, game in and game out.
Been nice knowing you, Lambert Jr….
As we all know, the Steelers run the 3-4. I must admit that I did not have a clue what that meant when I started hanging around these Steeler fan sites 5 years ago. At the time, Steeler fans were on the cusp of the Crash of Slash. Other Steeler problems were mostly ignored, including that horrible defensive collapse during the second half of the 1998 season. The cry at that time among Steeler fans (other than the one for Kordell's head) was for some pressure from the defensive ends. Whatever happened to Blitzburgh (we found him and promptly signed him to a long-term deal at PittsburghProSports.com)? I jumped on that bandwagon until a poster disabused my defensive end fetish, "Pressure does not come from the end in the 3-4, Dirt. The blitz comes from a linebacker in the base and often from the safety in the dime." And thus began my long journey to understand the Steelers defensive scheme.
The response of that post is loaded. First you have to understand the base defense, used on perceived running downs. That is when the Steelers give the 3-4 look, but that all changes in the dime, which is more a 2-3-6. The strength of the 3-4 is stopping the run. Its weakness is defending the pass. The job of the three down lineman is to occupy the blockers so the linebackers can make the plays. So, the success against the run starts up front, primarily with the NT. DEs that can play the run in the 3-4 are not that hard to find, NTs are. That is why Casey Hampton was drafted in the first round and Aaron Smith in the fourth. Essentially, thanks to the scheme, the Steelers get away with paying their DEs significantly less money than the rest of the NFL.
The real value in Smith's play is his ability to thrive in the dime as well as the 3-4 alignments. In fact, the Steelers have found themselves with two defensive ends that can rush the passer on passing downs, finding a late-round gem in Rodney Bailey. In the dime (using Dom Capers' innovations), there are two defensive ends up front (usually Smith on the left and Bailey on the right). They play much like rushing defensive tackles in the 4-3. The beauty with the Steelers personnel is the size and speed at outside linebacker. The passing defense usually has three linebackers, not four. The MLB is mostly an extra coverage guy that must read the play and figure who needs help or if there is a new receiver emerging on the play (running back or tight end). The OLBs can come from anywhere.
Essentially, Smith's bold play in the dime is a bonus. It helped to force the opposition to employ "max protect." However, the main goal of the Steelers blitzing scheme in the dime is to confuse the QB in terms of coverage. On a blitz, the QB is trying to make the "hot read," or find the receiver that best exploits the space left open by the blitzing defender. The versatility of the Steeler linebackers makes this a very difficult task. The QB is never sure if the MLB is rushing or in coverage. This year, that fun job will fall to Joey Porter, who will loop to the outside of Smith on his blitzes. Bell will probably be used to stunt up the middle (the inside of Smith) and Gildon will be looped around (as he loves to do all too much) to the outside of Bailey. Logan, Townsend, or Alexander can also be used to flood one side. But look mostly for a variety of Porter and Bell tandems to pressure one side or the other. The Steelers tried this a few times against Tampa Bay and had great success.
Bell will be all over the field, much like how the Atlanta Falcons will use ILB Keith Brookings. I expect to see Kendrell in the rover position on all downs and he should rack up a huge number of tackles. The speed and quickness of James Farrior at ILB will allow this to happen and the 2002 Steelers will look very similar to the crazed dogs of 1995. What happened to Blitzburgh in 1998? The Steelers just did not have the experience or the speed and talent in 1995, that they have now in 2002. Not only is that true of the linebacking core, it is true of the secondary. The addition of Logan was huge last season and the retention of Townsend is just as important this season.
For a successful 3-4, the Steelers need speed, size, and experience at all four linebacker positions. Furthermore, they need a fireplug freak at nose tackle and cornerbacks that can play both the run and the pass well. What happens at DE is gravy. So, the assessment of the importance of Smith's play is somewhat difficult. He is very good at what he does, the best I have seen under Cowher (including Ray Seals). Smith is great fun to watch, but does the defense turn on his presence? From what I understand of the Steelers defensive scheme (which is still sorely deficient), Smith is far from irreplaceable. The beat will go on thanks to Hampton, Bell, Porter, Farrior, Gildon, and those locked up CBs.
Don't worry if Aaron Smith departs (he has since signed...). Pittsburgh will still be Blitzburgh. At this point, I think I'd worry more about losing Lewis, Mularkey, or Clements. I hope Smith stays a Steeler, but his worth is not equal to holding Pittsburgh's Super Bowl hopes hostage. The success of the Steelers defense will rise and fall as it always has under Cowher, by the play of the linebackers and that immovable force in the middle. Smith may be a monster, but most of the opposition did not seem to notice. They were too busy worrying about other things. Smith may get more money and attention than he really wants on another team and in another scheme…