By John Harris
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
One day, Ryan Clark is the Steelers' starting free safety.
The next day, it's Anthony Smith.
Then it's back to Clark again.
Smith, Clark. Clark, Smith.
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"Coach (Mike Tomlin) said he wanted to see us battle it out,'' said Smith, a third-round draft pick in 2006. "They've got us rotating. Every other day I'll start, and then he'll start, and then I'll start.''
Given that Smith is younger than Clark, has a bigger upside and is one of the most ferocious tacklers on the team, the smart money says he'll be in the starting lineup for the season opener at Cleveland.
Like it or not, even Clark sees the logic in Smith's replacing him on the depth chart.
"With the way he (Smith) played (last season), I think they want him to start,'' Clark said. "He's a bright young player. They drafted him for a reason. (But) a lot of coaches came to me this offseason saying they watched the film and that I played good ball. I think out of respect for me and the way I played last year, they at least have to give me the opportunity to compete.''
So there you have it.
Smith, who started the final four games last season, is taking the company line.
"We know we're two good safeties, so whatever happens, happens,'' Smith said.
Clark, an undrafted free agent who missed three games because of injuries, isn't conceding the starting job to Smith. However, Clark raised the possibility of his coming off the bench and joining fellow safeties Smith and Troy Polamalu in packages that would highlight his ability to defend the pass.
"It's a long way from being decided, or maybe it's not. Maybe they already know who's going to start,'' Clark said at the conclusion of Thursday's organized team activity session. "Looking at some of the things Anthony did, some of the spectacular plays he made, I feel like it's hard to keep him off the field.''
Clark is more than just football smart. He's a fighter and a survivor who takes nothing for granted. It's why he's still in contention for a starting job entering his sixth season with his third team.
"I expected it,'' Clark said of rotating with Smith as the No. 1 free safety. "Coach (Dick) LeBeau kind of even told me at the end of the year that was what it was going to be, so it was no surprise at all. We're going to alternate all the way through until a decision is made, I guess when the season starts.''
While Smith's physical attributes outweigh his lack of actual game experience, he said he has a greater understanding of how he fits into the defense.
"Each day it's been easier for me,'' said Smith, who developed a reputation as a headhunter his rookie season. "You have to be a general when you're back there in this defense. They're looking for that, and a guy who can make plays.''
Said Clark: "We have a lot of talented guys. Who do you keep off the field? I just want to play -- period.''