Saturday, December 23, 2006
By Colin Dunlap, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
He sat in the corner of the Steelers' locker room on the South Side, in a silent moment devoid of much movement and any talk.
His demeanor before practice was as straightforward and no-frills as his name -- Anthony Smith.
And, as the commonplace banter and shenanigans swirled around him, Smith sat on a stool, speaking just above a whisper.
"I always had a dream of playing in the NFL," said the rookie free safety who was drafted in the third round from Syracuse.
"To be honest, you don't want to be that guy sitting around and not playing all that much, no matter what level it is. I told myself, 'If I didn't start, I was going to work hard and wait my turn.' But, I was going to come here and give it all I have on every snap and see what happened."
What has happened was that Smith --one of three Steelers starters with that surname -- has catapulted to an unexpected place.
The divisional showdown at Heinz Field tomorrow against AFC North leader Baltimore (11-3) will mark Smith's third consecutive start, no small feat for a rookie safety.
The fact is Smith realized an opportunity and ran with it
Ryan Clark started the first 12 games at free safety, but sustained a groin injury in the Dec. 3 win against Tampa Bay. Clark missed the next game at home against Cleveland on that bitingly cold night, giving Smith his first career start. Until then, Smith had been relegated to some dime-coverage action and had proven to be a solid performer on special teams.
Last week at Carolina, Smith started again, even though Clark was reactivated, and tomorrow, when the Ravens visit, Smith will be running with the first defense because Clark again is hampered by the injury and will not dress.
With his two interceptions in the past two games, Smith has forced coach Bill Cowher to take notice.
"He's gotten better, there is no question," Cowher said of Smith, whose Hubbard, Ohio, hometown is about an hour from Heinz Field. "I think Anthony was ready, has done a very good job, particularly in the last month. ... He's felt comfortable back there [in the secondary] and he's made some plays for us."
In addition to his physical talents and knack of seeing things before they fully develop, Smith also has won his teammates' trust.
"It is way more complex here," Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu said of the Steelers' defense.
"Some organizations run just three defenses where we may run 30 different defenses in a game. To adjust to that and have the responsibility of learning all of that is a difficult task, and Anthony has shown that he's able to grasp it."