Steelers coach Mike Tomlin strongly condemned a recent story that he said characterized Anthony Smith as a thug because of the free safety's aggressive nature.
Ryan Clark, who is competing with Smith for the starting job at free safety, went a step further.
"Not to bring race into it, but is it because he is black that these acts are called thuggery?" Clark said. "Because a man has tattoos or may play a certain way, it doesn't make him a thug."
Smith became a hot-button issue last week when he collided with Hines Ward in practice and knocked the veteran wide receiver to the ground.
Smith's hits on wide receivers in practice have earned him past rebukes from his coaches and teammates. The Steelers, however, have rallied around the third-year man whose brashness on the field, not to mention a brash prediction he offered last season, have made him a convenient target for criticism.
Tomlin said at a news conference Wednesday that associating Smith with the word thug crossed the line.
Smith also took exception to it.
"I never mugged anybody or robbed anybody," he said. "I got a clean record so I don't know how I can be classified as a thug."
"You've never heard of Anthony Smith being in a bar brawl. You've never heard of him carrying a gun, things that you associate with thuggery," Clark said. "(Former NFL linebacker) Bill Romanowski spit in a man's face on the field, (hurt) one of his teammates to the point that he was sued and the word thuggery was never used."
Ward didn't say much last week after his encounter with Smith, but he clearly wasn't happy about getting hit after making a catch.
Smith, who will play Thursday against the Bills in Toronto after missing the Steelers' preseason opener, said he and Ward have talked and that the two are fine. He said the collision seemed worse than it appeared because of the sounds his and Ward's pads made when they hit.
"You're not supposed to touch Hines, we understand that, but if you had a chance to watch the tape (Smith) literally tapped him," Clark said. "Hines had one foot up, he did a Manu Ginobili flop
, and when he was on the ground when you look at the picture, he was smiling."
Smith hasn't always made his teammates and coaches smile.
During his rookie season, he drew the wrath of defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for high-stepping at the end of a play in which he had intercepted a pass. Last year, Smith made an ill-fated guarantee that the Steelers would beat the unbeaten New England Patriots.
He made enough mistakes in that 34-13 loss and in the games that followed that Smith eventually was replaced in the starting lineup by Tyrone Carter.
His hit on Ward seemed to offer more proof that he is too interested in making the big hit to start at free safety. When the criticism opened up Smith for what his coaches and teammates saw as an attack on his character, they came to his defense.
"He's not a thug," Tomlin said. "He's a young professional football player who is trying to be at his best who happens to play the game very physically. We understand that perception all of the time is not reality, but some things are written or said that are hurtful."
Smith said he didn't read the story that touched off such a strong reaction among Tomlin and his teammates.
"I just think it was an ignorant statement," Smith said. "To put me in that category, I don't think is right."