Opposites Polamalu, Clark click for Steelers
By Scott Brown, PITTSBURGH TRIBUNE-REVIEW
Sunday, August 8, 2010
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The closest of friends, Steelers safeties Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark may also offer a study in contrast.
"Ryan is the loud guy," Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton said. "Troy doesn't talk on the practice field at all. I can't hear him, and I don't ask him to do it anymore."
Polamalu can be as reserved as Clark is outgoing, but the two are one where it matters most for the Steelers.
Indeed "yin and yang," as cornerback Ike Taylor calls them, are so in step on the field that if they stay healthy this season, the Steelers could wind the clock back to 2008 when they led the NFL in passing defense.
Polamalu played in only parts of five games last season because of knee injuries. The eighth-year strong safety's extended absence may have affected Clark the most.
Clark tied a career-high with three interceptions in 2009, but he admittedly tried to overcompensate for the loss of Polamalu, one of the premier defensive playmakers in the NFL.
In the end, the ninth-year free safety was part of a unit that allowed too many big plays and slipped to 16th in the NFL in passing defense.
"I think last year, while I still had a good year, I just felt like I had to do so much, and communicating with people is different," Clark said. "When you become so close to somebody off the field, there's things on the field that you develop."
Before the hard-hitting duo of Polamalu and Clark could form their spandex-tight bond, they had to overcome the fact that the latter is not Chris Hope.
Polamalu and Hope played together for three seasons and won a Super Bowl. When Hope signed with the Titans in 2006, the Steelers brought in Clark to replace him.
Polamalu was not exactly thrilled with the, ahem, trade.
"Not that Ryan had anything to do with it, it's just that I missed Chris, who I'm still close with," Polamalu said. "Imagine another safety coming in to replace Ryan."
Lending a hand
A friendship between Polamalu and Clark did blossom in 2007, and it has little to do with football.
When Clark endured life-threatening complications after a game in Denver caused his blood to sickle, Polamalu visited him frequently in the hospital.
The two prayed, Clark said, and even cried together.
Clark, who had to have his gall bladder and spleen removed in separate operations, made a full recovery from the harrowing ordeal. But he still hasn't forgotten the support Polamalu provided during those darkest of days.
"It showed how important I was to him, and when a guy does something like that, you can't help but love him," Clark said. "I think that was a big part in me making it through being sick, being around him. It strengthened my faith."
Their friendship has only strengthened their working relationship. And it may have played a role in the Steelers' defense having a season for the ages in 2008, when the 5-10, 207-pound Polamalu intercepted a career-high seven passes, and Clark served as a steady last line of defense.
"I really think Ryan takes pride in protecting Troy because sometimes Troy's really instinctual," Horton said. "Troy will sometimes get a feeling and go with it, and sometimes Ryan has to protect him on the backside, and he does. They're like brothers."
They apparently see each other as family.
Clark said one of his daughters once got into an argument in school because she referred to Polamalu as her uncle, and a classmate challenged her claim.
"She's like: 'Yes, he is. Why do I call him uncle Troy?' " Clark said with a smile.
More alike than different?
"Uncle Troy" is the one you might have trouble hearing in a library, and he comes across as quiet and even shy in front of TV cameras.
Clark, on the other hand, plays to the crowd at training camp. He looks equally comfortable while making guest appearances on ESPN's "First Take."
The two, however, are more alike than people might think.
Both are deeply religious, and Polamalu can have just as much fun with his teammates as Clark does albeit with the volume turned down.
Ask Bryant McFadden about a prank Polamalu pulled on him, and the veteran cornerback says: "Which one?"
One of the better ones happened during a preseason game two years ago in Toronto.
The Steelers beat the Bills on a late field goal, and when McFadden went to grab his helmet to go celebrate with his teammates he did not get very far.
The reason: Polamalu, unbeknown to McFadden, had tied the helmet to a bench.
As for any notion that Polamalu is quiet all of the time, Clark said: "He talks way more than me when we're together. I guess he just saves it all for when he's around me so I can't talk because he's tired of hearing me."
If Clark has to make himself heard that is because he crashed the NFL as the uninvited guest that is the rookie free agent. He also played with the late, great Sean Taylor in Washington and is now overshadowed by Polamalu.
Clark has excelled in watching Polamalu's back, allowing defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to employ the five-time Pro Bowl much the same way a master chess player uses a queen.
But Clark does more than just guard the back end of the defense.
A fearless hitter, he leveled Ravens running back Willis McGahee late in the 2008 AFC title game, forcing the fumble that ended any chances of a last-gasp Baltimore rally.
The 5-11, 205-pound Clark has also been among the team leaders in tackles the past couple of seasons.
"(Ravens safety) Ed Reed may make more ESPN highlight plays than Ryan, but I don't know if there's a more complete player than Ryan," Horton said. "Ryan picks the ball off, Ryan makes tackles and sets the whole defense. He is such an unsung player."
Clark signed a four-year, $14 million contact with the Steelers in March after nearly accepting an offer from the Dolphins.
He said a phone call from Polamalu helped convince him to stay in Pittsburgh — and continue a kinship between two that are seemingly complete opposites in personality.
"I would say we're a lot alike, more than we are different," Polamalu said. "Obviously he's got a more flamboyant personality than I have, but we like to prank each other. We can joke about anything. We can talk about anything."
Not that they have to say much to each other on the field.
"They've got that unspoken language out there," inside linebacker James Farrior said. "I've never heard them talking to each other. I don't know what they're doing back there, but whatever they're doing, it works."