Steelers weigh risks of Clark's participation

| Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2009

Ryan Mundy said he is preparing as if he is going to play a lot next Monday when the Steelers visit the Denver Broncos.

The Woodland Hills graduate could see extensive action with Ryan Clark's status in question, even though the starting free safety has been medically cleared to play in the nationally televised game.

If Clark doesn't play, then Mundy or veteran Tyrone Carter would get the nod.

"I'm just going to prepare as if I'm going to play a lot and if I don't, then I don't," Mundy said. "If I do (play), I have to make sure I'm ready."

The high altitude and a couple of medical conditions caused Clark's blood to sickle when the Steelers played in Denver in October 2007. The deprivation of oxygen to several major organs led to Clark, who has sickle-cell trait, getting his spleen and gall bladder removed in separate operations.

What coach Mike Tomlin said the Steelers will decide this week is whether there is still too much of a risk for Clark to suit up against the Broncos (6-1).

Tomlin said that even if Clark, who practiced with the rest of the team Monday, wants to play in Denver, he may overrule him.

"That's a possibility, sure," Tomlin said.

One thing that is certain: Clark, who is tied for the team lead in interceptions with two, has the backing of his teammates whatever decision is made.

"If he's unable to play due to life-threatening situations, I think anybody in this locker room would understand that," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "I wouldn't think twice about (not playing). Life is more precious than football."

The Steelers are intent on keeping the Broncos guessing on Clark's availability.

Clark, who won the Chief Award in 2008 because of his cooperation with the media, declined to talk to reporters yesterday. A Steelers official, meanwhile, reminded reporters of a team rule that prohibits them from revealing which players are working with the starters during practice and how many snaps they are getting.

If the Steelers are holding their cards tightly, that is because Broncos coach Josh McDaniels exploited them in 2007 when they were missing Clark.

McDaniels, then the offensive coordinator for the New England Patriots, went after Anthony Smith, Clark's replacement, in the Patriots' 34-13 win over the Steelers. Tom Brady threw for 399 yards and four touchdowns, and Smith was beaten for several big plays.

The Steelers don't have to reveal their decision on Clark until the day of the game. They are not required to list him on their injury report because the eighth-year veteran is not hurt.

"He's going to take in information and reps and prepare to play in the football game," Tomlin said of Clark. "His backups are going to do the same, and then at an appropriate time we'll sit down and come to a decision."

The Steelers do not have to make a similar decision about Santonio Holmes, even though the wide receiver also has sickle-cell trait.

Tomlin said a "pre-existing medical condition" along with sickle-cell trait caused the complication that put Clark's career and life in danger in 2007. Holmes, he said, does not have that same risk.

Holmes said he had trouble breathing in Denver when he last played there. He plans to sleep in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber he has at home all week. That will help him get used to the air that has a lower concentration of oxygen in it because of the higher altitude.

Holmes said the chamber can be adjusted so the oxygen level is similar to what the Steelers will experience in Denver.

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