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September 21, 2012

Steelers’ Clark thrives in role

PITTSBURGH — Ryan Clark does not stop talking. Not in the huddle. Not in meetings. Not on the sideline and certainly not on the field.

The irrepressibly chatty Pittsburgh Steelers safety offers a running commentary on everything from an opponent’s offensive set to his teammates’ sartorial choices.

Yet when asked how an undrafted player has managed to stick around the NFL for more than a decade, win a Super Bowl ring and make a Pro Bowl while serving as half of arguably the best safety tandem in the league and Clark grows quiet before answering.

“Because Troy (Polamalu) is a really, really talented guy,” he said.

True enough. Then again, isn’t Clark?

“Not like that,” Clark said. “Not abnormally talented for an NFL safety ... I’m just a guy.”

One that in his own way is perhaps just as valuable to Pittsburgh’s defense as his future Hall of Fame teammate. With Polamalu watching in sweats due to a strained right calf, Clark did a pretty solid Polamalu impersonation during a 27-10 win over the New York Jets last Sunday, all the way down to the eye-catching hairdo (a well-manicured faux-hawk if you’re keeping score).

If Clark wasn’t making one of his team-high eight tackles, he was breaking up a potentially game-turning pass to New York wide receiver Stephen Hill or bouncing ideas off Polamalu between defensive series.

There is a decided lack of ego between them, an offshoot of a franchise that has little tolerance for prima donnas, particularly on defense. When Polamalu is sidelined — as he could be yet again on Sunday when the Steelers (1-1) travel to Oakland (0-2) — defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau takes the cuffs off Clark a little bit and lets his faux-hawked defensive leader run loose.

The results can be stunning.

Clark spearheaded a defense that shut down the Jets in the second half last weekend as Pittsburgh’s secondary manhandled New York’s wide receivers and limited the Jets to 91 yards over the final 30 minutes.

It was the kind of performance that gets a quarterback’s attention.

“Ryan is probably one of the most underrated players in the game,” Oakland QB Carson Palmer said. “If not that, he’s one of the most underrated players on defense in the league because he’ll come up and hit people, he lets guys take chances, like Troy ... He’s always kind of there to save them.”

Not always.

Pittsburgh’s last two losses have come on the road in Denver, where a sickle cell trait that flares up at high altitudes nearly killed Clark five years ago. He made the trip both times but didn’t play. In each game the Broncos torched Pittsburgh’s secondary, most memorably on Demaryius Thomas’ 80-yard sprint past Ike Taylor and Ryan Mundy on the first play of overtime in January to give Denver a stunning 29-23 Wild Card victory.

Clark will never know if his presence would have made a difference, though the good news is Pittsburgh’s schedule — at least for now — is Denver-free. Yet he’s tried to turn a negative into a positive, using the notoriety gained by his condition to help launch the “Cure League,” an initiative designed to to raise awareness, donations and support for those who suffer from the blood disorder.

It’s a call to action the 32-year-old might not have heeded as a younger man. With his football mortality staring him in the face, however, he’s starting to gain an appreciation for what happens next.

While Polamalu talks openly about retirement and stresses taking everything day to day — a mantra he says repeatedly — Clark has no such plans, though he’d like to avoid moving at all costs.

NOTES: Polamalu, linebacker James Harrison (knee), tight end Heath Miller (abdomen) did not practice on Thursday ... Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Mike Wallace returned to practice after sitting out Wednesday ... Running back Rashard Mendenhall was a full participant in practice again and could play on Sunday against Oakland. Mendenhall hasn’t played since tearing the ACL in his right knee on New Year’s Day.

 

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