PITTSBURGH – Ryan Clark began shaking his head before the question was finished.
Here was the question: Is playing free safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers the most complicated position on the most complicated defense?
A look of disdain accompanied Clark's side-to-side head shake.
"It's still football," he said. "I learn fast and pick things up pretty quickly. The coaches break it down for you, so it's not that hard. The biggest part is communicating with guys like Joey Porter always talking. That's the hard part, making sure everybody can hear me over him."
Clark was smiling wide by now. He just met Porter that morning. By the end of the day, Clark had fit right in.
"Oh, man, I'm going to love it here," he said. "You know, I went to LSU, and all they do there is play football. That's what it's all about. Pittsburgh kind of reminds me of that, only with a pro team. Everywhere I've been people recognize me and congratulate me for being here, so that makes you feel good to be wanted and to play in a place where football is No. 1."
Clark played behind Tyrone Carter on Saturday but by Sunday was taking the first-team reps. But the guy behind both of them, rookie Anthony Smith, just might be the long-term replacement for Chris Hope. Smith has decided that shutting his mouth and watching the veterans is the best plan of attack. Smith shadows every move made by Troy Polamalu and Clark.
"I'm hanging around the right people," Smith said on Mother's Day. "And they've been helping me out a lot."
Smith was the Steelers' second pick in the recent draft. He was chosen in the third round out of Syracuse, where his 293 career tackles and 14 interceptions both rank third all-time for Syracuse defensive backs. He does hold the school record with six blocked kicks and special teams is where he'll begin his career with the Steelers. Smith's also the back-up to Polamalu on the dime defense, in addition to his reserve duties as free safety in the base defense. Smith's college coach recently compared him to Ronnie Lott in style.
"It was a real compliment to me," Smith said. "I'm here to work hard and hit people hard."
Smith is listed at 5-11½, but with his long arms and legs appears taller on the field. He considers himself an intuitive football player who's wading through the blizzard of information being thrown at him.
"We're going at a real rapid pace right now. They said it's the fastest they've ever gone," Smith said. "It was complicated at Syracuse; it's complicated here. When I learn the terminology I'll be alright."
The four-year vet had a career-high three interceptions last season and a career-high 75 tackles in 2004. When his contract expired, Redskins coordinator Gregg Williams appealed to Coach Joe Gibbs to re-sign Clark, but the Redskins instead gave a $10 million signing bonus to Adam Archuleta.
"That's what I heard," Clark said. "Defensive coordinators don't write the checks though. Do you know what I mean?
"It's a situation where they kind of pinpointed the guy they wanted. Archuleta was out there and maybe if it weren't for him going there it would have been different with me, but that's who they wanted. After they signed him they still wanted to sign me but we just couldn't come to a fair market price. The price I was asking they said that I wasn't worth it, but then he gets $10 million up front. I can't figure it out, to be honest with you, but I'm not going to bad-mouth them because that's the organization that gave me the opportunity to start. The Lord blessed me to come here so I'm in a better situation now."
The man was telling the truth. Clark obviously enjoyed the atmosphere both on the Steelers' practice field and in the locker room.
"You see guys just having fun and enjoying playing the game," he said. "I see why these guys won the championship."
Clark was asked for his early impression of Polamalu, his new partner in the deep patrol.
"For a guy that plays so hard and is so out there, it's amazing to see him because he barely speaks. He's kind of shy," Clark said. "Believe it or not he's a lot like Sean Taylor, who's quiet like that too."
Clark said his best asset as a player is his intelligence.
"Today I was able to go out and fit right in with the guys, know where to be and be able to tell guys where to be," he said. "Another thing, I love to hit. That's why I play defense: I love being physical. And what better to place to come and be physical than with the black and gold?"