A secondary that helped the Steelers record their most interceptions since 1996 and finish in the top half of the league in pass defense can hardly be described as under siege.
Just don’t tell that to cornerback Ike Taylor. Or free safety Ryan Clark.
Taylor took issue with what he perceived were shots at the Steelers secondary earlier this week. Clark later weighed in on the unit that will be on the spot Feb. 6 in Super Bowl XLV when it tries to slow down Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and his deep receiving corps. That’s the same quarterback who torched the Steelers defense for 383 yards passing and three touchdowns in a 37-36 loss last year at Heinz Field.
“I’m done being disrespected. I’m done even caring. It’s my second Super Bowl with this defense and the exact same guys minus Deshea (Townsend),” Clark said. “Maybe the other six or seven (defensive players) on the field with us are that much better than everyone else that they can overcome us being so terrible.
“Or maybe we’re all right.”
The Steelers allowed the fewest pass plays of 20 or more yards this season (35), and the secondary accounted for 14 of the team’s 21 interceptions.
A couple of weeks ago they suffocated the Ravens’ aerial attack, allowing 36 yards to Baltimore’s wideouts in an AFC divisional playoff game. Clark, meanwhile, keyed the 31-24 victory with a forced fumble and interception that allowed the Steelers to erase a 14-point halftime deficit.
Yet what drew the attention of the Steelers defensive backs were postgame write-ups that pointed out All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu missing a tackle on Ray Rice’s 14-yard touchdown run.
“It wasn’t the linebackers missing a tackle. It was Troy missing a tackle,” Taylor said. “As secondary players, we always say we’re the last line of defense. Regardless of what the front seven do, we’re going to always get ridiculed.”
That is among the occupational hazards. Having skin thicker than armor is as much a prerequisite for playing defensive back as speed and athleticism.
That reality was reinforced here last season when the Steelers’ secondary was scorched during and after a stunning 27-24 loss to the lowly Oakland Raiders at Heinz Field.
Clark fired back at reporters a couple of weeks later, calling them “turds.”
One of the most talkative Steelers, Clark may also be the perfect spokesman for a secondary that sometimes feels unappreciated outside of team headquarters.
Clark went undrafted out of LSU and is playing for this third NFL team.
He is also playing alongside one of the best safeties in the NFL for a second time, having done so with the late Sean Taylor in Washington in 2004-05.
“He likes to be the underdog, the forgotten guy, the red-headed stepchild, that whatever you want to call him,” Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton said of Clark. “He’s a guy with a lot of pride. We know how good he is. I guess he’s kind of, ‘Hey, there’s another guy here that can also play.’ ”
The Steelers are aware that the same is true of Rodgers.
Clark has lavished praise on Rodgers this week, calling Brett Favre’s successor the hottest quarterback in the postseason.
But he and Taylor also have made it clear the Steelers don’t exactly have Mo, Larry and Curly playing with Polamalu in their defensive backfield.
They’ll get a chance to prove their worth on one of the biggest stages.
The Packers threw the ball 56.2 percent of the time during the regular season. They figure to go to the air early and often against a defense on which it is nearly impossible to run.
“We told our guys, ‘Don’t make any mistakes about it. This is a throwing team,’ ” Horton said. “The challenge goes right to those (secondary) guys, and I’ll take them against anybody.”
So will Clark.
“Right now this group of individuals can say they’ve started two Super Bowls, some three Super Bowls together,” he said. “Go around the league and poll how many secondaries have done that. There’s not going to be many, if any, that can say that, so I think we’re doing all right.”
Green Bay had one of the most prolific passing attacks in the NFL this season. Here are some notable achievements by the Packers this season:
â¢ Passing offense ranked fifth in NFL (257.8 yards per game)
â¢ Five players caught more than 40 passes, and four players had more than 500 receiving yards
â¢ Aaron Rodgers ranked third in the NFL in passer rating (101.2)
â¢ Greg Jennings finished fourth in the NFL in receiving yards (1,263) and tied for second in touchdown receptions (12)