Clark No. 1, but for how long?

Ryan Clark is the Steelers' first-team free safety -- on Mondays and Wednesdays. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, it's Anthony Smith. The two are best of friends, but are competing fiercely for the starting job next to Troy Polamalu. Here's the breakdown:

Ryan Clark doesn't expect to remain the Steelers' first-team free safety, so when asked to make a case for starting, he said: "It's not my job to make a case for myself. … I'm just playing."

But excuse this brief statistical interlude that builds a case for Clark: Last season, the Steelers' leader in average tackles – both solo and total – was buck linebacker James Farrior with 6.5 solo tackles and 9.6 total tackles per start.

The only other player (with more than three starts) to top Clark in both categories per game was strong safety Troy Polamalu with 5.0 solo tackles and 6.3 total tackles.

Clark was third in a photo finish with his All-Pro sidekick. The free safety averaged 4.9 solo tackles and 6.2 total tackles per each of his 12 starts.

Clark, in fact, defensed only two fewer passes than Polamalu all season, and tied Bryant McFadden for the team lead in turnovers with four.

No wonder Clark is running first in the spring rotation with his good friend -- hotshot second-year man Anthony Smith -- at free safety.

Smith started the last four games for an injured Clark last season and played well (2.8/3.3 avg. tackles). It appeared the third-round draft pick of 2006 would surpass Clark on the depth chart, but the new coaching staff has used Clark to head the rotation this spring. Not that it's gone to his head.

"I think that was more a sign of respect," said Clark. "I would say right now we're equal. That was just to put somebody in there for the first day. Right now I think we're on equal playing ground; no 1 and 1A, just kind of both 1As. We're going to compete for the spot and whoever the coaches see fit to start, that's who's going to start. Either way, they'll have a good player out there."

Smith played well as a rookie, and he showed his ability right away. In preseason games, he had 17 tackles, a sack, two interceptions, three tackles for loss, three passes defensed and a vicious special-teams hit that's probably still stinging Philadelphia return man J.R. Reed.

Clark, though, was the opening-day starter. And he held on to the job and improved as the season went on. He made eight tackles in games two through four and appealed to Steelers fans for tattooing Cincinnati receiver Chris Henry to force an interception by Ike Taylor. Clark recovered two fumbles in the thrilling win over New Orleans and made a season-high nine tackles at Baltimore. But a groin injury knocked him out of the starting lineup for the last four games. He appeared briefly in the game at Carolina, but aggravated the injury and left.

"With the way Coach (Bill) Cowher spoke to me, they wanted Anthony to start because of the preseason he had, but they went with me because I was a veteran," Clark said. "But I think all purposes were to get him in there eventually, and I do think (because of) the way I played they couldn't find a reason to put him in. There was never a weakness. You couldn't come in and say I didn't play well, that I didn't do the things that were asked of me, so there wasn't an opportunity to get him in. I think once I got hurt, there was that opportunity and he went in and did his job. He played well. Those are the breaks sometimes."

Smith made the most of his opportunity. He intercepted two passes down the stretch and he too lit up Henry, the Bengals' bad-boy wide receiver. Smith also survived a sideline outburst directed his way by defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who didn't appreciate Smith's antics during an interception return against Carolina. It was dubbed the "Hot pizza! Hot pizza!" return by teammates.

"I proved myself to be a starter," said Smith. "Ryan didn't do anything not to prove himself as a starter. He's a solid player. We both made plays. He just happened to get injured and I made some plays. It just fell that way."

The rookie admitted that his missed tackle of Braylon Edwards allowed the Cleveland receiver to score a late touchdown in a Steelers win. Did Smith make any mental busts?

"When I first got in there I had a couple," he said. "But as I kept starting it kept getting easier and I just kept getting familiar with the defenses we were running. It made it easier. Towards the end of the season I was pretty solid. I had a solid season."

Smith was asked to make his case for the starting position.

"I'm a playmaker," he said. "I eliminate the long balls; good tackler; big hitter."

"Honestly, the way I see it," said Clark, "I would think all the bets are that they are going to go towards him. I think he's going to be a wonderful player in the league, a very talented kid. I think he'll make a difference on this team. So if you wanted my honest opinion, to which way it was going, to which way it was leaning, I would say toward him. But that's not my concern. I'm going to come out here and play football regardless. I came in last year in the same position, competing, and I felt like I was a little behind in that situation and I kind of feel the same this year. What the outside sees, they see the flash and dash. He makes big plays and stuff like that. Obviously, people want that."

People always want the next player.

"Right," Clark said. "But that's cool. Like I said, he's a great player."

For more from Ryan Clark and Anthony Smith on this and other topics, click this link.

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