When Darren Perry was a rookie free safety in 1992, he was afforded a luxury in the Steelers' defense that Anthony Smith doesn't enjoy.
To be sure, Perry was an eighth-round draft pick from Penn State who was playing in a secondary that included cornerback Rod Woodson and strong safety Carnell Lake. But he also was playing in a scheme that was new to every player on defense.
It was Bill Cowher's first season with the Steelers, and Perry didn't have to worry about having his mistakes magnified. All the other players were making mental mistakes, too, trying to get familiar and adjusted to the 3-4 defense Cowher implemented along with defensive coordinator Dom Capers.
"The biggest advantage I had is everyone was new to the system," said Perry, the Steelers' defensive backs coach. "If I screwed up, a lot of times a lot of guys didn't tell him because they were screwing up, too. If I did make the wrong call, it wasn't as obvious.
"Bill finally said, 'If you make a call, just make it loud enough and we'll all play the same defense, and you won't be wrong till you get to the sideline.' So I took that approach.
"Unfortunately, we got guys now in this system that know it pretty well. If you're late getting those calls out, they're going to be looking around wondering what's going on."
The reference was to Anthony Smith, the Steelers' rookie free safety.
Smith does not enjoy the same luxury as Perry, who is the first and only rookie to start at free safety for Cowher. Smith is one of the newcomers in a secondary that includes safety Troy Polamalu and cornerbacks Deshea Townsend and Ike Taylor, players who have spent a combined 16 years learning and executing the intricacies of the defense.
But, in Saturday's 21-13 preseason loss in Arizona, Smith was one of the team's shining stars, intercepting two passes and looking like a natural center fielder in the secondary.
"You have to be impressed what you saw the first time out," Perry said.
"I think he looked great out there," Polamalu said.
"He definitely stuck out," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said.
And yet, no matter how well he plays, no matter if he continues to perform as he did against the Cardinals, Smith's chances of beating out Ryan Clark or Tyrone Carter for the starting free safety spot are almost inconceivable.
At least for now.
"It is a very tough position because not only do you have to get yourself lined up, you got to get the other 10 guys lined up," said Smith, a third-round pick from Syracuse. "It's a big job. Hopefully, I can [start], and, if not, I'll just wait till it's my turn."
Polamalu had to do the same thing when he was a No. 1 pick in 2003, sit a year and play behind Mike Logan at strong safety while he learned the defense. And all he did was make back-to-back Pro Bowls and get named first-team All-Pro once he became the starter.
Nobody is ready to predict the same stardom for Smith, a three-year starter at Syracuse, But, in his first outing with the Steelers, he opened the eyes of his teammates and coaches with his performance. That was especially true on his second interception when he floated toward the left sideline and went high to intercept a deep pass for Cardinals receiver LeRon McCoy.
LeBeau called it "a great interception."
"He showed some range," Perry said. "We knew coming in that's one of the things he showed he can do in college. He's got great ball skills. He's still learning the defense, but sometimes you see some natural ability come out in a lot of those young players. You got to hope they keep developing."
Free safety is a tough position to pick up as a rookie because the player is responsible -- along with inside linebacker James Farrior -- for calling the defensive signals and adjustments in the secondary. Even though Clark, a free-agent acquisition from Washington, is a newcomer, too, he has familiarity with the terminology and style because he played in an attacking defense with the Redskins.
LeBeau, though, tries to ease the transition for a rookie by using him as an extra back in some of the nickel and dime defensive packages. He did that when Polamalu was a rookie, and he did it last year when cornerback Bryant McFadden was a rookie. LeBeau doesn't like good players to sit on the bench.
"We do a lot of things and they're kind of our quarterback on the field, along with the buck linebacker," LeBeau said. "They got a lot of calls to make and they can't be wrong. They got to understand strength, motion formations, and they got to be 100 percent certain."
"All you have to do is talk to Troy and ask him about that first year, and Troy is a pretty bright guy," Perry said. "It's a lot of information you have to process, and you do it quickly. A lot of guys are dependent on you to make that call."