The safety dance

LATROBE – Steelers Coach Bill Cowher insists he's not worried about who starts at free safety, but it's the only position among the base 22 that's up for grabs. So, the media insists Cowher must worry.

"You're not talking about a couple rookies; you're talking about two guys who've played a lot of football in the National Football League," Cowher said. "I'm very comfortable with where both those guys are and I'm really not that concerned about that position."

It might've been the third time in a week Cowher used that last sentence. He must mean it.

Saturday in the preseason opener at Arizona, Cowher will use Tyrone Carter at free safety next to Troy Polamalu, whom you might remember was a bit worried when Chris Hope left the Pittsburgh Steelers last March.

Cowher insists Ryan Clark, the team's most expensive off-season signing, will receive equal playing time throughout, and that rookie Anthony Smith, whom the Steelers drafted in the third round, is waiting in the wings. Can we rule him out?

"I don't want to rule anything out," Cowher said. "But it's tough for a rookie to walk right in there and do that. Darren [Perry] may be the lone ranger but he did that because we had no other choice. We had a lot of people hurt. Now, Darren never looked back either."

Perry, of course, walked into a starting job as Cowher's first free safety after being drafted in the eighth round out of Penn State in 1992. Rookies don't normally walk into such a complicated position so early, but Perry was helped by an injury to Gary Jones and a holdout by Thomas Everett, who was soon traded. Perry was also helped by the fact that Cowher brought an entirely new defense with him to the job. As Perry has said plenty of times since, "Nobody knew the defense so it didn't matter much that I didn't."

Perry, of course, is now the Steelers' secondary coach, and, with Dick LeBeau as coordinator, the defense is even more complex and the free safety must be on top of matters. That's why Carter has the slight edge right now.

"They're just competing," Perry said. "These next four games will pretty much determine who that guy will be."

The Steelers have used plenty of three-safety sub packages the last two years because Polamalu can handle the role as fourth cornerback. LeBeau's favorite pass-downs package is the "quarter" because three safeties and three corners provide better tackling than two safeties and four corners. But even with the frequent use of the quarter, the winner of this derby at free safety will receive close to 50 more snaps per game.

So what's the difference between Carter and Clark at this point?

"Really there's not a whole lot," said Perry. "They both have different qualities. Ryan's a bit bigger but both of them have pretty much the same short-area quickness. They're equally fast. T.C.'s been in our system a little bit longer so he's a little more comfortable than Ryan, but Ryan's doing a heck of a job getting it all down. There's not really a whole lot of difference between those two."

Does the loser win the third safety spot in the quarter?

"You still can't forget about Mike Logan, or even one of the young guys," Perry said. "You've got to see how these guys perform in the games."

Logan has recovered from a knee injury in the Super Bowl and is playing well. Smith, the rookie, is a big safety with a nose for the ball and his time will come. The other safeties are undrafted rookies Zach Baker of East Carolina and Mike Lorello of West Virginia. They're likely competing for a spot on the practice squad.

"There's no question there are going to be some tough decisions to make back there, along with receiver," Cowher repeated. "At those two positions there are quality players."

He doesn't seem too concerned about the position. Better ask him again tomorrow.

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