Where does Smith stand?
By Scott Brown
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
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He is one of the quieter players in the Steelers locker room, yet he has been at the center of a media-driven controversy two times in the past nine months.
The paradox extends to the football field, where he can be so authoritative, yet rudderless at times.
There is not a more enigmatic Steeler than Anthony Smith.
And as the team breaks training camp -- practice shifts back to their South Side facility today -- at least one fundamental question remains unanswered: Can Smith, who one Steelers veteran said has as much physical ability as any player in the secondary, be trusted as one of the last lines of defense?
Or, more to the point, does Smith get it?
"Until he does get it, he ain't going to get it," Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton said. "He's not going to play unless he does it our way."
Smith by the numbers
Here is a look at what free safety Anthony Smith did in his first two seasons with the Steelers:
Year G GS Tackles Assists Total tackles INT PD
2006 16 4 13 2 15 2 7
2007 16 10 65 9 74 2 3
That equates to Smith doing battle on two fronts, as he tries to unseat Ryan Clark at free safety, and they are the same ones he waged a year ago: man vs. man and man vs. himself.
Regarding the latter, Smith is not unlike someone taking swings at a piņata.
The 6-foot-1, 200-pounder can deliver ferocious hits, but he also appears to be blinded at times by an apparent need to lay out any wide receiver that dares to trespass over the middle of the field.
What the former third-round draft pick needs to strike more than anything else is a balance between playing aggressively and showing the restraint that is demanded of a free safety.
"Sometimes, the way he plays right now is all one speed," starting cornerback Deshea Townsend said. "When he gets it -- where he plays the mental game as well -- he's going to be a star back there. He's probably the most explosive player we have in the secondary."
Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu included?
"Uh, yeah," Townsend said. "Anthony is explosive. When he gets all of that down, he's going to be a great one."
Smith has shown flashes of greatness, but they have been diminished by the lapses that have left him out of position as well as ones in he has been perceived to be out of line.
The latter includes the high stepping he did after making an interception during his rookie season and the guarantee he made last December that the Steelers would beat the undefeated New England Patriots.
Then, of course, there are the run-ins he has had, literally, with the Steelers wide receivers.
Even coach Mike Tomlin said Smith violated practice etiquette with his hit on veteran Hines Ward. It renewed questions about whether the former Syracuse standout is aggressive or just a reckless head hunter.
"I'm not a dirty player," said Smith, who had four tackles in the Steelers' 24-21 loss to the Bills in Toronto last Thursday. "I'm not a (Patriots safety) Rodney Harrison. I don't hit people after the plays and all of that.
"I'm just a guy who plays the game in between the whistles. If people get mad at me for that, that's fine."
Smith realizes the coaches have a problem with how he plays at times. They drove that point home late last season when they stripped him of the starting job he had assumed after a serious illness sidelined Clark. He is still trying to convince the Steelers coaches that they can rely on him.
"They trust me, but they don't trust me to the point of 'Alright, he's going to be the guy,' " Smith said. "Me and Troy, we have the same mentality where we both like to get to the ball. Some things I do, they don't really like.
"They want you to be in a certain position at a certain time, and it's just little stuff you've got to work on."
Smith has been practicing at free safety and strong safety, and he said he prefers playing the former because he can see the entire field.
The problem with that is he sometimes loses sight of the fact that he has to keep plays in front of him and not always give in to the temptation to go for the knockout hit.
"I think a natural athlete wants to do it a certain way, and we give them the leeway to do it in the system his way," Horton said. "But when it doesn't work, you've got to do it our way, and it didn't work last year."
When told that Smith said he knows he has to earn the trust of the coaches, Horton said, "I'm glad. He's maturing. He's got to be in the right place at the right time and do what's expected. He understands that he's not going to play until he does it our way."
Tomlin sees signs of that happening.
"I know from a day-to-day standpoint, how he approaches his business, there's been an improvement," Tomlin said. "I'd like to think he's moving in the right direction."
Scott Brown can be reached at [email="email@example.com"]firstname.lastname@example.org[/email] or 412-481-5432.