How soon we forget?
Someone suggested to Steelers safety Ryan Clark Sunday night that he played his best game in a 27-10 win against the New York Jets at Heinz Field. Clark grinned and was appreciative, then tried to be helpful. "I was pretty good against Baltimore in the playoffs," he said.
The playoffs after the 2010 season.
Clark dug the Steelers out of a 21-7 third-quarter hole by forcing Ravens running back Ray Rice to fumble and intercepting a pass from quarterback Joe Flacco. He also had eight tackles in a 31-24 win that nudged the Steelers toward Super Bowl XLV.
Maybe Clark's performance Sunday at Heinz Field didn't quite match that. But it still was special.
No Troy Polamalu for the Steelers?
No James Harrison?
Clark was back, playing his first real game in what seemed like a lifetime to him. He made plays just about every way a defensive player can. Rushing the passer? Check. Stopping the run? Check. Breaking up a deep pass? Check. Dishing out brutal hits? By now, after watching the man play here for six-plus seasons, you know that's a check.
"It's tough. It's hard. I hate [playing without Polamalu]," Clark said. "I'd much rather let Troy be the hero. I'd much rather sit back there and do nothing and let him make all of the plays."
Polamalu missed the game with a strained calf. Harrison was out with a knee injury. "I had to do all of the work," Clark said, grinning again.
Clark was joking, of course. This was a strong performance by a defense that came up small in the second half of the opening-week loss to the Denver Broncos. It held the Jets to 10 points after they put up 48 in a win against the Buffalo Bills a week earlier.
Clark blamed himself for the Jets' touchdown on their first possession. He bit on a play fake by quarterback Mark Sanchez, leaving cornerback Ike Taylor without inside help. Sanchez threw a strike to wide receiver Santonio Holmes for a 14-yard touchdown.
"I tried to do too much. That was totally my fault," Clark said.
And the reason for the defensive improvement after that initial series?
"No. 25 stopped playing really bad, period," Clark said. "I stopped being a knucklehead and we were able to play some football."
To say Clark was geeked for the game wouldn't be a strong enough description. He missed the Denver game Sept. 9 because of a blood disorder that affects him at high altitude and missed the playoff loss in Denver in January for the same reason. He hadn't played in a meaningful game since the Steelers beat the Cleveland Browns in the final regular-season game last season.
"I was just excited. I had a lot of emotion," Clark said. "People kept telling me all week -- my teammates -- 'Bring that excitement to the field.' "
So Clark did.
He broke up a deep pass to wide receiver Stephen Hill. He had nice tackles on a 2-yard run by running back Bilal Powell and a 2-yard catch by tight end Jeff Cumberland. He jumped the play to throw running back Shonn Greene for a 6-yard loss. He drew a holding penalty on Greene when he was about to knock Sanchez into next week. And, of course, he gave up his body to put hard, but clean, hits on tight end Konrad Reuland and Holmes. He had to leave for one play with a stinger after the hit on Holmes.
"Yeah, I got a stinger because I led with my shoulder," Clark said.
Welcome to the new NFL.
"I don't think about those hits when I make them," Clark said. "I don't worry about what could happen to me. When you think about them, that's when you get hurt."
Clark made sure to credit the play of Chris Carter and Jason Worilds as replacements for Harrison. He talked of Ryan Mundy being "smart enough" to play for Polamalu Sunday and for him in Denver.
"And a guy like Cortez Allen, he played a much better game today [as the nickel back]," Clark said. "That really helped us a lot. He lined up right every time. This game isn't just about the physical part, it's about the mental part, too. He was very good today."
Everybody drew high grades from Polamalu, who talked to the media more after this win than he does when he plays.
"Actually, I loved watching all of the guys," he said. "I get 100 percent of the enjoyment and 0 percent of the soreness."
Clark knows better. He knows how much Polamalu likes to play, how he loves being there for his teammates. He likes to think Polamalu and Harrison will be good to go Sunday against the Raiders in Oakland or, at the very least, after the Steelers' off week when they play the Philadelphia Eagles Oct. 7 at home.
"We're going to need those guys to be a great defense," Clark said.
Not Sunday, though.
Not against the Jets.
Not with Clark back on the field, back where he belongs.
Ron Cook: email@example.com First Published September 17, 2012 4:00 AM