Sunday, July 29, 2007
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Despite being their only significant free-agent signing -- and giving him a $7 million contract with a $1.65 million signing bonus -- Ryan Clark was not merely handed the starting free safety spot in the Steelers' defense last season. First, the Steelers staged a thinly veiled competition in training camp between Clark and veteran backup Tyrone Carter, one of their returning Super Bowl contributors. The only thing missing was a wink.
The battle went right through the entire preseason, with Clark and Carter each starting two games at free safety and coaches insisting the competition was close. But, to nobody's surprise, when the regular season began Clark was anointed the starter to play alongside Troy Polamalu.
This year, Clark is involved in another battle to be the starter, this time with second-year safety Anthony Smith, and, again, the competition might not really be a competition at all. This time, though, Clark might be on the other end.
"From what I see, I'm kind of the underdog because of his great talent and potential," Clark said.
Indeed, after watching Smith start the final four games of the 2006 season when Clark was injured, after watching him deliver big hits, break up passes and make two interceptions, the Steelers are more than just convinced they want him playing in their defense on a regular basis. They believe Smith, a third-round pick in 2006, has all the necessary ingredients to be one of the league's top safeties.
But, for now, the Steelers are putting up the guise of a training-camp battle between Clark, Smith and even Carter, who is the top backup to Polamalu at strong safety. They even went so far as to anoint Clark the starter heading to training camp, and have spent the first week at Saint Vincent College rotating him every other series with Smith in the first-team defense.
"Right now, they're sharing time," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "We're trying to make that pretty even, and get Ty what we can get him in there. The first day, just because we had to have someone in there, we put Ryan in there, but we kind of look at those guys as pretty even right now and let them battle it out.
"We just think those three guys, we need to let them compete and see how it shakes down. Competition is a good thing. Anthony is the youngest, so he probably has the most room to grow. But we can all grow."
The Steelers waited an entire preseason anointing Clark their starter last year, a curious decision in that the "competition" deprived him, as a new member of the defense, of getting more reps with the first team. And they might wait the entire preseason this year, too, before making a decision, electing to rotate Clark and Smith through the five preseason games, beginning Aug. 5 in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio.
But, when it does shake down, Smith is expected to be the starter when the Steelers open the regular season Sept. 9 in Cleveland, barring some unforeseen circumstance.
"They know I can make plays and, when I get out there, I try to do as much as I can and be as helpful as I can to the defense," Smith said. "When I get out there, they know they have a good rangy safety and a guy who can make plays."
It's not as if the Steelers are disappointed in Clark, who was signed after the 2005 Super Bowl season to replace departed Chris Hope. He started the first 12 games, finished with 75 tackles (the second-highest total of his career) and, like Hope, proved to be a big hitter in the secondary. He also had an interception and a team-high three fumble recoveries.
But, when he injured his groin in a Week 13 game against Tampa Bay, Clark was replaced by Smith and never got back in the starting lineup. In his first start against Cleveland, Smith defended two passes and recorded his first interception with a 20-yard return. A week later against Carolina, Smith had another 20-yard interception return. In his third start against Baltimore, Smith had a game-high seven solo tackles and delivered several big hits.
"He got the ball in just about every game," LeBeau said. "It's what we saw in college. He's all over the field and he's a good hitter.
"He's still in the development stage as far as knowing all the calls and fits a safety has to make. But we like everything we've seen in him."
Smith said, "That helped me out a lot, just to be able to get that experience, just to know what the game atmosphere is like, just to get a chance to show what I can do and showcase my skills."
Despite their competition, Smith and Clark remain best friends. Clark said Smith comes over to his house for dinner and plays with his three children, Jordan, Jaden and Loghan. Smith said Clark is always helping him on the field, telling him about defensive calls and where he is supposed to be on certain plays.
"There's going to be competition, regardless," Clark said. "Everyone wants to be a starter. He's competing to be a starter, he wants to be a starter, and he's working toward that. And I want to make team and I want to play a lot.
"When he's out there, I'm rooting for him, and when I'm out there I'm sure he's rooting for me. I want him to play well."