Originally Posted by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Polamalu adjusting style with Clark absent again
Friday, October 31, 2008
By Gerry Dulac, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Tyrone Carter will replace Ryan Clark at free safety
Troy Polamalu was once dubbed the "Tasmanian Devil" by former teammate Chris Hope because of the wild, unharnessed manner with which he always plays -- legs churning, hair flying, arms flailing, body spinning.
But whenever there is a replacement at free safety in the Steelers' defense -- and there is again -- Polamalu, a four-time Pro Bowl strong safety, has to become more of a chameleon. He has to change the way he plays.
"I play much different when all [the regulars] are in there," he said of the secondary.
Polamalu's usual partner in the secondary is Ryan Clark. But, for the second consecutive season, Clark encountered physical problems in a late October game and will not play Monday night against his former team, the Washington Redskins, in Landover, Md.
Unlike last season, his condition is far less serious than the disorder that required Clark to have his spleen removed and miss the rest of the season. This time, Clark has a dislocated shoulder that might keep him out for only one game.
He will be replaced in the starting lineup by Tyrone Carter, who, by position and physical style, is the backup strong safety, a player who is more suited to playing closer to the line of scrimmage than as the last line of defense in the secondary.
But Carter will be the free safety against the Redskins because the Steelers still remember what happened last year when Anthony Smith replaced Clark.
"T.C. is more of a strong safety whereas Anthony is more of a ball-hawk kind of safety," Polamalu said. "That's how they're different. To have T.C. in there, I would play much different than when Ryan is in there.
"I feel comfortable with Ryan because we've had more reps together. With T.C., we're more interchangeable because he can play strong safety. Anthony, he doesn't mind being back there because he can make plays on the ball. I can be more of a traditional strong safety playing with Anthony. I'm more me with Ryan."
Polamalu had to play without Clark for most of last season, and the fallout from that personnel loss was scattered around the NFL, stretching from Foxboro, Mass., to a first-round playoff loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
When Clark developed the season-ending spleen disorder in Week 6 in Denver, he was replaced by Smith, a third-round draft choice in 2006 who had been alternating every third series with him. Smith was being rotated into the first-team defense into an attempt to get more playing time and groom him to replace Clark as the starter.
But after being beaten twice for deep passes in New England -- a game in which he predicted victory against the unbeaten Patriots -- and then being burned on a 55-yard touchdown the following week against Jacksonville, Smith was eventually benched by coach Mike Tomlin and still has not rebounded on the depth chart.
"When a player produces, he gets on the field," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "We have a high opinion of Anthony Smith. He just has to go out there and produce."
"He's got to learn how to play free safety," Carter said. "At free safety, you have to be back there deep to prevent the long pass. You can't try to be aggressive.
"He's a playmaker. He's going to be a great safety. He has all the tools, all the attributes as a safety you would want. But he has to get smarter to understand his position and not try to make every play when he sees stuff. He's a big-play guy. He can catch, he can hit, he can do everything. He just has to learn to be a free safety."
When Smith was benched in Week 15, Carter was moved to free safety and started the final three games, including the playoff loss to the Jaguars. But free safety is not Carter's natural position because it requires him to play in more open space, rather than the tight quarters to which he is more accustomed near the line of scrimmage.
And, by his own admission, it requires him to fight his natural instinct to be aggressive.
"You can't react to stuff you see in front of you," Carter said. "It's a challenge. Me, I'm very instinctive. When I see something, I like to go and attack it. But at free safety you can't do that."
But that's what happened in the wild-card playoff loss to the Jaguars. Carter was the last player to have a shot at Maurice Jones Drew and missed the tackle on a 43-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown. And Carter missed an open-field tackle on David Garrard's 32-yard scramble on a fourth-and-2 play that set up the winning touchdown.
The Steelers are hoping to avoid a repeat of those problems this time.
"We'll miss Ryan Clark," LeBeau said. "Ever since the day he came here, he's played as a real productive level. They'll have to pick up where Ryan left off. Fortunately, we'll have Ryan back very quickly."
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org