Steelers Notebook: Smith still playing strong, gets another start at free safety

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It might be that Ryan Clark is still not 100 percent recovered from a groin injury that caused him to miss the previous game. Or it could be that rookie Anthony Smith played so well in his first NFL start that he will get another against the Carolina Panthers.

Whatever the case, Smith is expected to start at free safety tomorrow against the Panthers, another step on his road to becoming a full-time starter in the Steelers' secondary. If he is not already.

"I had a good week and I think they want to see if I can carry it through the next week," Smith said. "I want to get in there."

Smith made a big impression in his first start, intercepting a pass and delivering several big hits in a 27-7 victory against the Cleveland Browns. He was filling in for Clark, whose groin was injured five days earlier against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Clark is listed as probable on the team's injury report and has practiced all week. But it appears he will be used as an extra back in the dime defense and Smith will start against the Panthers.

"I was pretty happy with my performance," Smith said of his play against the Browns. "[The coaches] said I had a good game. I don't know what they're going to do yet. Regardless of what they do, I just do what they ask me to do. It doesn't matter too much."

Smith said it has taken time to learn the free-safety position, which requires the player to call defensive signals, and also get comfortable as the sixth defensive back in the dime defense. But he said he is "real comfortable" now and needs to just get more playing time.

It was the same thing when safety Troy Polamalu was a rookie. He was used as an extra back in the nickel defense all season and did not become a starter until his second year. Polamalu has said the most difficult adjustment was learning the defense.

"I didn't think it started clicking for me probably till late in the season, about this time," Polamalu said. Then, referring to Smith, he said, "He seems comfortable with it. He plays the game very hard. He has a good feel for the game."

Wilson feeling better

Wide receiver Cedrick Wilson (ankle) practiced for the second day in a row and will play on a limited basis against the Panthers. Santonio Holmes, however, will start at split end for the second game in a row.

Wilson was upgraded to probable on the team's injury report, one day after he was upgraded from doubtful to questionable.

It is something of a rapid comeback for Wilson, who missed only one game with a high ankle sprain. Typically, such injuries result in more missed games.

"It just started feeling better," said Wilson, who is tied for third on the team with 32 catches.

"It's a matter of threshold of pain. And I'm able to take the pain."

And to all a good night

In addition to being a defensive innovator and strategist, Dick LeBeau is also a great story-teller.

But there is one story he tells every year to his players, and his unique recital from memory has become the stuff of Steelers team lore.

That's why he was requested to tell "Twas The Night Before Christmas" for all team and front-office members at the annual Christmas party the other night. Team chairman Dan Rooney asked LeBeau to recite the story for everyone, and he obliged, touching and spell-binding those in attendance with his rendition.

"That's the kind of request you don't turn down very readily," LeBeau said.

So there was LeBeau, telling a narrative that led up to the verse, then reciting the story -- without book -- with emphasis and sound effects. He spoke for nearly 10 minutes, enthralling everyone who listened.

It is something he began doing when his kids were small, and he still does it for his "other" kids.

"I thought I'd learn it for my family," LeBeau said. "My mom and my aunts, they made Christmas such an important thing. What a wonderful memory it has been for all of us, family-wise.

"I did it for my mom, really, and my aunts, that's who I did it for. It became a family thing, and, somehow, it got to be an extended family thing with the teams I've been with."

Even though they got an early preview the other night, LeBeau will tell the story again for the players during an upcoming team meeting.

"They'll get a doubleheader," LeBeau said.



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