Former Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Aaron Smith is one of the most underrated players in Steelers’ history. Smith won two Super Bowls with the team and was a huge force in helping the Steelers have a dominant defense in the 2000s. However, Smith may not have become the player he was if it wasn’t for how recently retired Steelers coach John Mitchell pushed him.
In a recent interview on Steelers.com, Smith recalled to Dale Lolley how Mitchell went into him throughout his rookie season.
“I come in in ’99. I go to camp and everything, the rookie camp, OTAs and camp. He’s not really coming at me too much. And then the season starts and he’s just devastating me,” Smith said. “He made me get up early in the morning to meet with him. He made me stay after everybody else left to meet with him. If we had a down period in practice where there weren’t any defensive players needed, he would pull me aside and have me doing extra drills. He’s just coming at me.”
Smith’s first year wasn’t that successful, seeing only nine snaps where he recorded two tackles. He went on to say how brutal Mitchell’s coaching was to him.
“It was to the point where, if I saw him coming down the hall, I would try to hide. Now, I’m not a teenager. I’m a man. I’m thinking, how can I avoid this guy at all costs?”
Mitchell’s focus on Smith paid off, as in his second season Smith saw a huge increase in playing time. In the 2000 season, Smith played in all 16 games and started in 15 of them. He finished the season with 48 tackles, ten tackles for a loss, four sacks, and one pass defended against, something that he was uniquely good at for a defensive lineman, finishing his career with 21 pass breakups.
Smith’s career continued to take off, with his best season coming in 2004 when he was selected to the Pro Bowl thanks to a season where he made 44 tackles, eight sacks, ten tackles for a loss, forced three fumbles, and broke up one pass.
However, the highlights of Smith’s career were yet to come, as in the 2005 season he would win his first Super Bowl, and in 2008 he would be part of one of the best defenses in recent memory and won his second Super Bowl.
Sadly for Smith, after the Super Bowl in the 2008 season, his career to a sharp turn downward as injuries prevented him from playing more than half a season the rest of his career. However, that does not take away from the greatness he had in his 13-year career.
Smith finished his career with 481 tackles, 84 tackles for a loss, 44 sacks, 21 pass breakups, one interception, seven forced fumbles, and nine fumble recoveries. Likely a future Steelers Hall-of-Honor member, without John Mitchell’s grilling and correction in his rookie season, Smith may never have reached the heights he did as a player.
Mitchell helped lead a Steelers defensive line that was the strength of the defense for over two decades. Losing him will hurt, but the legacy he left in Pittsburgh will be remembered for a long time.