The water is back in Steelers' well
With Ryan Clark healthy again, there is no talk of competition at free safety
Thursday, July 31, 2008
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
As much as the defense suffered late in the season without defensive end Aaron Smith, he might not have been the player the Steelers missed most in 2007.
It might have been Ryan Clark, their free safety.
He missed the final 10 games after having surgery to remove an inflamed spleen, and the pass defense was never the same. His replacement, Anthony Smith, foolishly guaranteed a victory against the New England Patriots and was benched because coach Mike Tomlin grew weary of watching passes get completed behind him.
Smith was replaced by veteran Tyrone Carter, who missed two big tackles in the AFC wild-card playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars -- on a 43-yard touchdown run by Maurice Jones-Drew and on a 32-yard scramble by quarterback David Garrard in the final seconds that set up the winning field goal.
"It's a shame that to be appreciated, I had to be sick and my friends had to not do as well as usual," Clark said.
Nobody at the start of the 2007 season thought one of the Steelers' most indispensable players would be Clark, not even the coaches. But, with all the problems and big plays allowed by the secondary late in the season, his loss might have been the most damaging, maybe even more so than the torn biceps injury that ended Aaron Smith's season Dec. 9.
"You never miss the water till the well runs dry," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau.
That's why there is no talk of a competition at free safety this season. Clark, 28, is back, healthy and ready to go after a scary period last year in which his weight dropped to 172 pounds -- 34 pounds below his playing weight -- and he thought his NFL career might be over.
And he is lining at free safety with the first-team defense, not alternating series -- or even plays -- with Smith, not like he did last year.
"When I came back, everybody was different," Clark said. "Even Ben [Roethlisberger] came up to me and said, 'We're so different with you out there.' Even walking up here [from the practice field], last year when I was signing autographs, the fans were like, 'Ryan, try hard, but Anthony is going to beat you out.' There's none of that anymore."
Clark said it bothered him last year when he reported to training camp and had to split time in the first-team defense with Smith, a No. 3 draft pick in 2006 with whom he is good friends. He said he was upset because after signing with the Steelers as an unrestricted free agent before the 2006 season, he thought he performed well enough as a starter to merit the position.
But the coaches wanted to get Smith, an aggressive, explosive hitter, enough playing time to groom him as the eventual starter. So the Steelers began the regular season with Smith playing every third series at free safety.
"I felt like I outperformed whoever I was competing against at my position, but I still had to alternate," Clark said. "If I had been outperformed against people I was competing against, I wouldn't have got that same luxury.
"No matter how much of a man you are, you say you don't care about other things, [but] it bothered me. Not because Anthony was playing, because I think Anthony is going to be great, but because I wouldn't have been extended the same courtesy had I been outplayed. That bothered me. To me, that ain't right."
LeBeau said Clark shouldn't feel that way.
"Ryan has always been appreciated, I can assure you of that," LeBeau said. "Our goal here is, we don't look at our players as starters and backups. We're trying to get everyone ready for that day when they have to take every snap. We feel we have a good talent in Anthony Smith. These guys have to get game experience so they can grow. It was no reflection on Ryan in any shape or form."
After a 31-28 loss Oct. 21 in Denver, Clark was admitted to a hospital and told the problem with his spleen developed from complications of exerting himself in high altitude. At the time, Clark said he had similar problems in Denver when he played for the Washington Redskins two years ago, but the problem was diagnosed differently.
Now, with his weight returned to 206 pounds and feeling better than ever, Clark is ready to resume his career. He has to take six shots a year, monitor his health daily and be careful where he travels. But he will not forget the problems of last season, nor the death of his friend and former teammate, Sean Taylor.
Still, Clark said he is a better player because of everything that happened, mainly because he doesn't care as much about the little things that used to bother him.
"What can they do to me?" Clark said. "What can they do to me that will be worse than last year? Me being where I was, then turning on the NFL Network and seeing Sean Taylor has been shot while I have tubes in me, to see that happen to someone who is indestructible? To come out here now, it's just football."