There isn’t a player today in the National Football League or in the past that didn’t have his detractors. Whether those fans find criticism in a particular players’ style, ability, or decision to even keep playing or not the fact is all players receive criticism. Even a guy like Barry Sanders had detractors.
Pittsburgh Steelers’ Free Safety Ryan Clark is not unique to this. He has earned his share of criticism over his career which now spans more than 10 years, but he has also earned some deserved praise as well. We can talk at length about how great Troy Polamalu is and certainly he is one of the all-time great strong safeties, but much of what he is able and allowed to do is because of Clark.
No other game illustrated the problems the Steelers’ secondary has with Clark out than the Wild-Card loss in Denver. The final, game-ending play was of course the perfect example of why Clark is so important to the defense. First of all, the defense on that play reeked of arrogance as the Steelers had all 11 defenders within five yards of the line of scrimmage when the ball was snapped. While it is never a surprise to see Polamalu around the line of scrimmage, the question was why was Ryan Mundy racing up so quickly? This left no one deep in the secondary and left corners Ike Taylor and William Gay in one-on-one situations. The same type of situations that saw them get burned most of the day in Denver.
I can’t say any more than you can whether Clark would have stayed back and limited the catch to a modest 12-15 yard reception. Fact is, we just don’t know but I can certainly believe he’d be back protecting the middle of the field much better than Mundy. That wasn’t Mundy’s first issue on the day either. The Broncos’ first touchdown of the day came on a pass to Eddie Royal in the corner of the end zone. It was a well-thrown ball and frankly, I’ve seen worse coverage by Gay, but the glaring part was how late Mundy was in getting there. This has been an area that Clark has actually gotten better at with age.
Clark was notorious for getting beat deep breaking the cardinal sin for a safety in ‘letting a receiver get deeper than you.’ The last couple of years, he’s improved at that and it was clear that ability was missing that January day in Denver. We musn’t totally forgive Troy Polamalu either for he was late getting over to help Ike Taylor on a couple of situations that resulted in big plays. I chalk it up to arrogance as I mentioned earlier as this defense gave up few big plays all seasons yet was torched for several by Tim Tebow. The mind-set was quite simply, “stop the run and you stop Tebow.”
Clark will once again sit out this Sunday’s game in Denver with his health issue that hinders him greatly at higher altitudes. It wasn’t his call as much as it was Mike Tomlin’s but either way, Clark is not playing. I suppose the one positive if you can call it that is Denver no longer has the dual threat Tebow. All they did is replace him with an all-time great in Peyton Manning. While he won’t be the threat that Tebow was in running the ball, Manning will most certainly test this defense more with the pass.
The defense has had nine months to stew, process, evaluate and learn from what happened back in January. Dick LeBeau already has the deck stacked against him with Clark out and potentially a less than 100% James Harrison if at all. LeBeau knows Manning and Manning knows LeBeau, but with Manning in his first game in two years, I fully expect LeBeau to be ready with or without Clark and he has no excuses not to be. Sunday night’s game will be very telling as to just how different this defense is without Clark and more importantly, it could tell us if LeBeau has learned anything.