As a 10-year veteran, Smith knows how to gauge what to expect from his body, but experience does nothing to lessen one's pain.
"You're always sore after playing, but it's a little different when you're not used to playing at the full game speed," Smith said. "I'm usually around 40 to 50 (snaps)."
It didn't take long for Smith to make an impact. With the Falcons leading 21-0 midway through the third quarter, Smith bull-rushed Bryant McKinnie and sped past Minnesota's left tackle. He chased Culpepper from behind and blindsided him with a sack in which he also forced a fumble.
The Vikings retained possession because the ball bounced out of bounds, but the play helped Smith relieve a lot of frustration after his streak of 43 consecutive games ended in Week 2.
"I came all the way from the back side and wound up holding onto (the ball)," Smith said. "That's a dream shot for a D-end, for him to have his back to you holding the ball that long. If I don't get the ball out on that play, I probably didn't do my job."
Without Smith in a loss at Seattle and a win at Buffalo, the Falcons started rookie Chauncey Davis on the left side and moved Pro Bowl selection Patrick Kerney to the right. They also had Junior Glymph, who since has returned to the practice squad, taking snaps on the right side when Kerney moved back to the left.
Smith's return allowed position coach Bill Johnson to give rookie Jonathan Babineaux, who works primarily as the backup to "under" tackle Rod Coleman, the remainder of snaps on the right side. Coleman's five sacks lead the Falcons and rank third in the NFL.
"Bill Johnson does an outstanding job of diagnosing opponents blocking schemes and getting Rod in as many one-on-one matchups as he can," head coach Jim Mora said. "Sometimes that means that a guy like (nose tackles) Chad Lavalais or Antwan Lake has to sacrifice themselves a little bit and take the double, so we can get Rod on the one-on-one."
Against the Patriots (2-2), Smith will line up primarily against rookie left tackle Nick Kaczur, a third-round draft choice from Toledo. Kaczur made his first career start in last week's 41-17 loss to San Diego after Matt Light was injured at Pittsburgh.
Light, a starter in all nine of New England's playoff games under head coach Bill Belichick, won't face the Falcons (3-1). The Patriots definitely missed him last week as three-time Pro Bowl running back Corey Dillon gained just 63 yards on 14 carries.
With Light anchoring the line, Dillon set a single-season franchise record last year with 1,635 yards rushing. It marked the first time in 19 years that a New England offense averaged more than four yards per carry.
Smith, who last week increased his career sack total to 44 will face a defending Super Bowl champion at the Georgia Dome for the second time. St. Louis in 2000 and Tampa Bay in 2003 each coasted to wins over the Falcons. Though Light is sidelined for the Patriots, Smith believes Kaczur will have learned how to correct many of mistakes these past few days.
Actually, Smith isn't concerned who lines up on the other side of him. He just wants to beat the NFL team that's established the first dynasty since the San Francisco 49ers won their fifth and final Super Bowl at the conclusion of the 1994 season.
"I just think that somewhere in the back of your head, you know you're facing the guys who won the Super Bowl," Smith said. "At some point, you're got to think they've got a ring for a reason, and that they're probably a pretty darned good football team."
Quarterback Tom Brady, who has directed the New England offense since the team's impressive streak began in 2001, is notorious for avoiding sacks and distributing the ball quickly.
"He's an operator," Smith said. "He doesn't get rattled. He's going to stand there, make his reads decisively and get the thing out of there and where he wants it to go. We've got to do some things to try and disrupt that, obviously."