Clark healthy but Smith to start at FS

PITTSBURGH – Ryan Clark missed the last game with an injury and it opened the door for a rookie by the name of Gehrig.

At least that's what rookie free safety Anthony Smith hopes his teammates can call him some day.

"Anthony played a good game last week," said Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "I'd like to see him do it again."

Smith will get that chance. Although Clark says he's healed from his groin injury, it appears he's fallen behind Smith on the depth chart.

Clark's reaction?

"I don't coach, man," said the veteran the Steelers acquired in free agency last March to replace the departed Chris Hope.

But the Steelers also drafted Smith out of Syracuse in the third round, and it appears he's passed the veteran for good.

"That's not necessarily the case," said LeBeau. "Ryan's groin's still a little sore. Playing Anthony just allows us to ease Ryan back into it."

Smith will start Sunday at Carolina, but the Steelers are thin at the position, even with Clark as a backup. Strong safeties Troy Polamalu and Mike Logan are doubtful for the game with knee and hamstring injuries. Tyrone Carter will start again at strong safety alongside Smith. Clark's the first reserve and cornerback Deshea Townsend is the emergency safety.

"We're going to need all of our safeties, trust me," LeBeau said.

But Smith's looking at it as an opportunity to build on what he did last week against the Cleveland Browns. His bit hits broke up a pair of passes and he also intercepted a pass. His only mistake was taking a bad angle on Braylon Edwards and not wrapping his arms to make the tackle. Edwards ran through Smith on his way to a 45-yard touchdown with 5:20 left in the Steelers' 27-7 win.

"I was happy with my performance," Smith said. "The coaches said I had a good game."

The Steelers have been planning to make Smith their free safety ever since the draft combine. There, Smith turned heads with a 41-inch vertical jump and a 6.75-second three-cone time. He didn't run a 40, but at his pro day ran a 4.7. The Steelers liked the speed they saw on tape and knew Smith's poor 40 time would hurt him in the draft, so they were able to trade down out of the second round and still get him in the third.

Smith intercepted two passes in the preseason opener, and then led the team in tackles in each of the next two games before missing the final preseason game with an injury.

He played special teams the first four regular-season games before playing safety late in the Kansas City blowout. Smith moved into the pass-downs packages against New Orleans and broke up two passes. He replaced the injured Clark in the second half against Tampa Bay and then started last week against Cleveland.

"I'm real comfortable," he said of his understanding of the position. "I just needed to get more reps. That's all it came down to, really."

What about the alleged complexities at free safety in the Steelers' defense?

"I figured it all out," he said. "Not every detail, but for the most part I've got the hang of it."

His teammates have been impressed.

"He plays the game very hard," said Polamalu. "I think he has a good feel for the game."

"He's definitely a ballplayer," said linebacker Larry Foote. "We knew that at training camp. I'm sure you all saw him in preseason and now he's getting his opportunity. He's still learning, though. He's still a long way away from being the player he's going to be, but it's going to be exciting watching how he's going to blossom if he stays healthy and stays positive. He likes the game, he's aggressive and he likes football. When you get those types of guys, you know they're going to work at it. The game means a lot to him."

It means a lot to Smith to crack the starting lineup because it was no small hurdle, considering how well Clark was playing and that, at 27, the veteran is in the prime of his career.

"But it's a good situation," said Smith. "You have two young safeties competing for the starting job. We're both smart and athletic and it's going come down to who the coaches feel more comfortable with.

"Me and Ryan are good friends off the field. No matter what the situation is, nothing will ever come between us. It will all come down to what the coaches want to do and who they want to play."

And those coaches may have tipped their hand this week.

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