Anthony Smith, with his two interceptions and forceful run support, appears to be a dream come true for a team looking to replace Chris Hope. But it's not that easy. It never is in a league that seems to thrive on complexity.
Turns out, rookies can't process game-speed information the way it seemed Smith did last Saturday. The problem, they say, is the free safety has to make critical pre-snap calls.
But if that's the only reason the Pittsburgh Steelers can't pair Smith with Polamalu as a dream safety tandem, why can't the Polamalu, the veteran strong safety, make the calls?
"He can. He does – some of them," said Steelers coach Bill Cowher. "The free safety's the guy who's furthest from the ball. He's the guy who, most of the time, is in the middle of the field. And our safeties are both interchanged so much that they really, at times, play both positions."
That answers the question – some of it. For a more confusing explanation, the question was presented to Polamalu, Why can't he make the pre-snap calls in the secondary?
"The strong safety has got a lot of other – I wouldn't say bigger things – but he's got a lot more on his plate," Polamalu said. "The free safety sees more in a half field than a third, doesn't have to react like this [snapping] to everything, and doesn't have to see the formation first. He can think through what you're going to get and what's going to hurt; he can think through his call. He's lined up in the middle half, or deep half, or middle third, and he already knows what he has. He can see the formation really easy so it's easy for him to make the calls on defense because he's also deeper and he doesn't have as much of a role, I would say, in having to make the linemen calls, stunts, having to make adjustments with linebackers. That's the tough thing.
"Aside from that, there's the dime or nickel. I'll play the dime and they'll tell me this is what I have, but I'll say, Tyrone [Carter], take this because I'm going to take this. So by knowing all three positions, the offense would think we're running five different defenses when in actuality we're running one and I'm just switching the roles of five different guys. So if he can understand that and pick that up sooner, the better we can get because he's very comfortable in the box as well."
Polamalu, of course, had lamented the fact that after spending three years to build a winning chemistry with Hope, he left as a free agent. So, after watching "The Natural" play on Saturday, should Polamalu start building a chemistry with Smith?
"Yes, but chemistry is not only on the football field," Polamalu said. "The relationships are built most importantly as friends with trust and that's why we're a good defense, a great defense, because we're all great friends with each other. But the relationship is formed the first time we met, so obviously we have a great relationship thus far. As far as the football end of it goes, it's based on how fast he picks up the defense. Free safety's a tough position. You've really got to have some years under your belt to break into that starting lineup, especially with the way I would play. You really have to understand the defense.
"I put Chris in a lot of tough positions last year and it'll be the same with Tyrone and Ryan [Clark] because they're going to have to know both spots. I'll play both spots, and I may do it during the play, and they would have to react to it. That's just the freedom the coaches have given me, not the selfishness of me doing whatever I want to do."
As for Smith, he called the game "a confidence builder," and of the position said: "Not only do you have to get yourself lined up but you've got to get the other 10 guys lined up. It's a pretty complicated job but one I'm used to."
How far is Smith from understanding the position?
"Not too far," he said. "I've just got to clean things up and get a little sharper. This system is one of the most complex in the league. It'll be a little tougher for me but I'll get there."
And how many passes will he intercept per game once he knows what he's doing?
"Hopefully a lot more," he said.
Is Anthony Smith "The Natural"?
"We liked him at Syracuse, the plays he would make," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "Sometimes players can step up to the professional level and continue to do that and sometimes it takes them a while. But right now he's shown us that he can do a lot of those things at this level. It'll be interesting to watch that young man to see how he grows, but he certainly played very well in Arizona."
Will it be difficult keeping him on the bench?
"Like I say," said LeBeau, "if you get two interceptions a game, you're going to play."