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NFL sack king Bruce Smith toppled 76 quarterbacks over 19 seasons

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Which quarterbacks did Bruce Smith sack the most? (0:53)

With 200 career sacks, Hall of Famer Bruce Smith brought fear to the hearts of many NFL quarterbacks. But for some, such as Dan Marino and Drew Bledsoe, their meetings were all too frequent. (0:53)

ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. -- Drew Bledsoe was a 21-year-old rookie when he made his professional debut with the New England Patriots on Sept. 5, 1993, against the Buffalo Bills.

As he warmed up at what was then known as Rich Stadium, Bledsoe, the NFL's No. 1 overall draft pick four months earlier, glanced at the tunnel leading to both teams' locker rooms. Walking into the cloudy, 70-degree day was a 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive end with destruction of the opposing quarterback on his mind.

Bruce Smith was the baddest man on the planet, and Bledsoe knew it.

"I almost peed my pants a little bit," Bledsoe told ESPN by phone last week.

A little more than 23 years later, Smith will walk out of the same tunnel Thursday night at what is now called New Era Field. He'll be honored with a gesture that has been unofficial since he last played for the Bills in 1999: the retirement of his No. 78 jersey.

Plans for the celebration were announced in May, setting the stage for Smith to join quarterback Jim Kelly as the only players in franchise history to have their numbers officially retired. Kelly's No. 12 jersey was retired in 2001. The official retirement of running back Thurman Thomas' No. 34 jersey is expected as soon as next season, and O.J. Simpson's No. 32 has long since been removed from circulation but not officially recognized as a retired number.

The Bills will fete Smith in a halftime ceremony Thursday, when they host the New York Jets, which is fitting, because no team's quarterbacks felt the crushing weight of Smith more than Gang Green.

Of Smith's NFL-record 200 sacks over his 19-year Hall of Fame career, 31 came against the Jets, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Only three teams' quarterbacks escaped Smith's iron grip: the San Diego Chargers, Baltimore Ravens and the Bills. The Ravens were in existence for only the final eight seasons of Smith's career, from 1996 to 2003, and Smith faced the Bills only once, in 2003, when he was a member of the Washington Redskins.

A staggering 76 quarterbacks were wrapped up and taken down by Smith, according to Elias. It's a list that includes five men whose bronze busts, like Smith's, glisten in Canton, Ohio: John Elway, Dan Marino, Joe Montana, Warren Moon and Steve Young. One of Smith's victims, New England's Steve Grogan, entered the NFL in 1975. Among Smith's final sacks was Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck, who retired in March.

No quarterback hit the turf at Smith's expense as many times as former Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien, who was sacked by Smith 17.5 times from when the Bills made Smith the No. 1 overall pick out of Virginia Tech in 1985 until O'Brien retired following the 1993 season.

"I guess I got him where he is today," O'Brien quipped to ESPN last week.

Obviously, O'Brien's distinction as Smith's most frequent sack victim is a function of the two playing in the same division for eight seasons, from 1985 to '92. Bledsoe, who was a twice-a-year adversary from 1993 to 1999, is second on the list, having been sacked 12.5 times by Smith. Another AFC East foe, Marino, is tied for third, sacked 9.5 times by Smith. The three quarterbacks combined for 15 Pro Bowl nods, so none is in bad company.

But stopping Smith -- or, at the very least, trying to slow him down -- was a perennial challenge for all three quarterbacks, their offensive lines and coaches.

In O'Brien's opinion, if an edge rusher had to be created from scratch, Smith would be the prototype.

"He was just a freak," O'Brien recalled. "He was explosive, quick step off the ball. Strong, quick with his hands."

Said Bledsoe: "Bruce was one of just a handful of guys that you had to know where he was on the field at all times. He was just such a physical presence, played with such great intensity, had such great speed that he could single-handedly ruin a game if you didn’t pay close attention to him."

Bledsoe was fortunate to have a rock at left tackle in Bruce Armstrong, a six-time Pro Bowler and Patriots Hall of Fame inductee who battled Smith in the trenches from 1987 until Armstrong's retirement following the 2000 season. Even then, the Patriots had to find ways to give Armstrong help on the edge.

"One thing we would try to do with Bruce -- sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully -- would be to try to run straight at him," Bledsoe said. "He became a much better run defender later in his career, but earlier in his career he was more of a pure pass rusher. So instead of trying to run away from him or throw the ball, we would try to run straight at him. We felt like that negated some of his athletic ability. It forced him to play with strength rather than speed or quickness.

"But later in his career, he became even a better run player. So then it was a real problem."

O'Brien, who said last week that he was honored to play against Smith, could relate. While O'Brien tried to block out Smith's presence and focus on preparing to make his reads in the pocket, his offensive line sometimes could not escape Smith's intimidation factor. O'Brien recalled some of his blockers "slowing down" and becoming apprehensive in the days leading up to games as they faced the prospect of being on an island against Smith.

"If you left him one-on-one with anybody, that was a bad matchup for the offense," he said. "So you're always going to try to get somebody else -- whether it was the back chipping him, or a tight end coming in and staying in and blocking for him, or a receiver coming across the formation and trying to hit him."

Even then, getting hit by Smith was nearly unavoidable.

"He showed up all the time," O'Brien said. "He played 100 percent. He was running around and played football the way it should be played. For all the young kids out there, that's how you're supposed to go out about do something."

"He had a pretty darn good motor," Bledsoe said. "Bruce was not one of those guys that took a lot of plays off. He played hard almost all the time, at least as far as I can remember."

Forgetting Smith wasn't easy for Bledsoe. He was sacked twice by Smith during their first meeting that September afternoon in 1993, a 38-14 win by the Super Bowl-bound Bills.

Nike later produced a commercial featuring the "very bad things" that Smith did in his cleats. The first clip played in the spot? Smith slamming Bledsoe to the Rich Stadium turf during that game.

"I was the poster child for him doing 'very bad things' to a quarterback," Bledsoe said last week with a laugh.

As for being the second-most-sacked quarterback on Smith's list, Bledsoe took the recognition in stride.

"It means he didn't injure me, so I stayed on the field for a long time," he said. "And he got a chance to hit me again."