By Joe Starkey
Thursday, September 7, 2006
Ryan Clark won't be surprised if the Miami Dolphins target him tonight in his first start as the Steelers free safety.
In fact, he'd welcome it.
"If they want to do that, good," Clark said. "It's more of an opportunity for me to make plays. It'll be fun. I'm sure they'll go at everybody, trying to attack anybody's weaknesses, but, of course, you have to go at the new guy. Why not?"
Clark isn't the only new guy who'll play a key role in tonight's game. The Steelers will unveil two other new starters -- defensive end Brett Keisel and receiver Cedrick Wilson, both of whom contributed off the bench last season -- rookie reserve safety Anthony Smith and two speedy rookie receivers/return men in Santonio Holmes and Willie Reid.
You also might have heard that Charlie Batch is starting at quarterback.
The Dolphins have several new faces, including quarterback Daunte Culpepper, fullback Fred Beasley, offensive tackle L.J. Shelton, guard Bennie Anderson, cornerback Will Allen and safety Renaldo Hill.
Clark finally was named as the replacement for departed free agent Chris Hope after a spirited training camp battle with Tyrone Carter and Smith. Coach Bill Cowher didn't declare a winner until this past Saturday.
"It's a blessing that I earned the spot," Clark said. "We all had a fair chance to get it. I'm blessed that they chose me. I'm excited, and, you know, just ready to play some football."
Clark and Dolphins coach Nick Saban go back a ways. Saban was Clark's coach at LSU and stayed in touch after Clark was passed over in the 2002 NFL draft. He eventually hooked on as a free agent with the New York Giants but spent most of the 2002 season on their practice squad.
"Coach Saban always said, 'If you need me, I'll help you,' " Clark said. "He was always talking to me about one day becoming a coach for him, so maybe I'll keep that line open. He knows I have a lot of love for him, and I think he has the same for me, but come (tonight), that doesn't matter."
Tonight, Clark will be the Steelers' last line of defense. Besides the daunting challenge of dealing with Culpepper and top receiving threats Chris Chambers and Randy McMichael, he must prove he can mesh with his aggressive and freewheeling safety partner, Troy Polamalu.
Hope had mastered that trick. Polamalu's hoping for the best.
"It's definitely different back there without Chris," Polamalu said. "One of the keys to our defense has been our ability to hold up on the back end, which also had been an Achilles heel in previous years. Whether or not we'll be more successful, we'll see."
Clark said he and Polamalu have been become study partners.
"He's a big film studier, and so am I," Clark said. "We've just been kind of bouncing things off each other, like, if we get certain looks, this is how we'll play.'
Clark, 26, won a starting job with the Giants in 2003 and played next to All-Pro Sean Taylor the past two seasons with the Washington Redskins. He has faced Culpepper twice.
"All you know about him is he can throw the ball a mile," Clark said. "And if he has Chambers and McMichael and (running back) Ronnie Brown to catch it, it's going to be tough on you. A lot of guys are doubting him, so he's probably going to be very motivated."
So is Clark, who might have signed with Miami if he hadn't signed with the Steelers.
"I was actually supposed to go there the day after I left here," he said