Ryan Clark, absolved by the league office for what should have been a legal hit Sunday in New England, is ready to do it again, and if he gets a chance to tee-up Terrell Owens of the Cowboys, he said he'll take it.
"I try to hit everybody," Clark said yesterday, hours after learning the league judged his hit on Patriots receiver Wes Welker clean. "I don't care which one. I'll take them all, I don't turn any of them down. We're just going to go out there and play.
"If that opportunity presents itself [against Owens], of course you take that shot. But if you have to tackle him by his shoestring, I'll take that one too, as long as he gets to the ground."
Clark's big hits from his free safety position have been resounding this season, drawing one fine and some putdowns from the opposition. Even New England cheap-shot artist Vince Wilfork called him a cheap-shot artist.
He was flagged by at least two officials on the field Sunday when as a pass was tipped and sailed beyond Welker's reach, Clark slammed into him, shoulder first. The officials told Clark he should not leave his feet, but the NFL's vice president of officiating said there's no rule against that.
"A lot of people think it's a foul to leave your feet," Mike Pereira told the Boston Herald. "Launching is not a foul. ... It is a foul to hit with your helmet against a defenseless receiver. It is a foul to throw a forearm into the neck or head area of your opponent. I don't think either of those things happened. I'm not a fan of those high hits, but if you do it with your shoulder, you're OK."
In other words, there should have been no flag thrown.
"Like I said Sunday, I thought the hit was clean," Clark said. "I was just playing football. It's good they said something like that but if you look at that situation, if we'd have lost that game, if that drive would have cost us the game, it would not have mattered much what they say after the fact."
Still, Clark's big hits in the secondary add another component to the creation of the NFL's best defense. The Steelers hold the triple single -- No. 1 in total defense, No. 1 against the run and No 1 against the pass -- to go with it.
Clark's hits are reminiscent of the kind safety Donnie Shell delivered in the 1970s and early 1980s, and he has combined with strong safety Troy Polamalu to possibly give receivers some pause as they consider passes over the middle.
"If I was a receiver and the ball was going to be stretched out for me to go across the middle, and I know Nos. 25 and 43 are lurking, it might affect my mind-set a little bit," cornerback Bryant McFadden said.
Clark received the ultimate compliment from the offense's big hitter, Hines Ward.
"I watched it," Ward said, "and I heard it from the sideline and I said, 'Oooh, I'm glad that wasn't me.' "
Ward believes there's a message to be delivered along with those hits.
"They will get smashed," Ward said of receivers going across the middle. "That comes with the territory. ... Ryan and I joke around; when he was at Washington I tried to kill Ryan. I tell him I'm glad you're on my team and I don't have to deal with you on that."
Clark and his wife received angry messages calling him all types of names after his booming hit on Welker. Wilfork went on radio Monday in Boston and said of the hit: "Of course it was a cheap one. We've seen it on film all year."
Clark laughed at the Patriots' reaction because one of their safeties is Rodney Harrison, fined by the league numerous times for illegal hits and voted by players in a Sports Illustrated poll as the dirtiest player in the league.
"Last I checked, I never had a meeting with Roger Goodell about anything I did," said Clark of the league commissioner. "I just play. One of my favorite players in the NFL is Rodney Harrison. I really find it funny that a team he's on is acting this way."
The controversy that swirled around Clark's hit on Welker is merely the latest involving the Steelers this season. Ward twice was fined for hits in which he was not penalized, and he too was absolved by the league for a block that broke the jaw of Cincinnati linebacker Keith Rivers and riled the Bengals. Clark and linebacker LaMarr Woodley also were fined for hits.
"It's all Hines' fault," Clark said, half jokingly. "They wouldn't even watch us like that if Hines didn't hit the way he does. He put us all behind the 8-ball from the beginning because, you know, wide receivers aren't supposed to do that.
"I think our team is being made out to be somewhat dirty at times and I think we're just physical and play a hard-nosed brand of football. But you can't stop playing that way."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 4, 2008 5:00 AM