PITTSBURGH (AP) -Defensive end Aaron Smith has been one of the Pittsburgh Steelers' most dependable players since his rookie season in 1999, rarely overpowered at the line of scrimmage or caught in a mismatch against a superior player.
The problem is Smith can't produce if he's not on the field and, for the first time since his rookie year, he won't be there Sunday in Cincinnati. Smith did not practice all week because of a sprained ligament in his left knee and won't play in the key AFC North game.
Coach Mike Tomlin understands what losing one of the NFL's most consistent defensive linemen means.
``Aaron is as good a football player as we have on this team, not only on the defense,'' Tomlin said. ``You know what you are going to get from him. ... The level of his play is consistent and consistently high.''
Steelers-Bengals matchups in recent seasons have featured Smith going against Cincinnati right tackle Willie Anderson, but Anderson is likewise out with a knee injury.
Also out for the Steelers (4-2) is safety Ryan Clark, who had a spleen problem while playing Sunday in Denver and didn't practice all week. He will be replaced by Anthony Smith, who usually plays in extra-back alignments.
Cornerback Bryant McFadden (sprained ankle) also isn't expected to return after being held out for the last two games.
Aaron Smith has started every Steelers game but two since 2000, but was injured during the first quarter of the Steelers' 31-28 loss Sunday in Denver and did not return. He wanted to come back but was not cleared by team doctors, then wasn't all that happy when Tomlin effectively ruled him out of this game early in the week.
``That's my motto: Whatever the coach says, that's what I'll say,'' Smith said.
The Steelers aren't making any predictions on how long Smith will be out, but such an injury often forces a player to sit for multiple games. Smith apparently does not need surgery, which likely would have sidelined him for the season.
``As soon as I can get on that field and be healthy and compete, I'm going to get on the field and do it,'' Smith said. ``I'll just try to stay in shape and stay involved as much as I can.''
Nick Eason, formerly of the Browns, filled in for Smith in the base defense during the Denver game, with Travis Kirschke or Chris Hoke taking his spot inside at tackle depending on the alignment. Rookie linebacker LaMarr Woodley may line up as an end on certain pass-rushing downs.
``Aaron Smith is one of the better defensive linemen in the NFL,'' said Eason, who had one tackle in Denver. ``He plays at a high level. It's my job to play to the same level that he plays at and not let it be a letdown.''
Smith said he is certain that the Steelers will be fine without him against the Bengals (2-4). Smith is tied with Kevin Greene for ninth in team history with 35 1/2 sacks despite being used irregularly as a pass rusher.
``I believe anybody on our defensive line can step in and play,'' Smith said.
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