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Starkey: Can NFL secondaries still intimidate?

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Sunday, Sept. 23, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

One look at an Oakland Raiders helmet sparks images of vicious hitters from another age. The likes of George Atkinson, Jack “The Assassin” Tatum and Skip “Dr. Death” Thomas spring to mind.

Secondaries were a dangerous place to roam.

Are they still?

I figured Ryan Clark's locker was a good place to start — and I began with a Raiders-themed question: If somebody called Clark a modern-day Tatum, would he consider it a compliment?

“Oh, definitely,” Clark said. “You're talking about a legendary guy in this game because of the way he played. He's even famous for plays that didn't go the Raiders' way. It'd be an honor and a privilege to be compared to a guy like that.”

Consider it done. And consider Clark living proof that even with all the rule changes, receivers still have plenty to worry about when they cross the middle against certain teams.

“He's our enforcer back there,” linebacker Larry Foote said.

True, defensive backs no longer can lay out receivers with forearm shivers or smash them two seconds after the ball bounces away. They cannot do what Steelers great Mel Blount used to do.

“He used to pick up receivers and slam them on their heads,” recalled Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake.

What's the new mantra? Don't use the head; don't hit the head. Still, the notion that the NFL has turned into “flag football” is ridiculous. Defensive backs still deliver the kinds of hits that will get a man thinking. Like the perfectly legal one Clark laid on Santonio Holmes last Sunday.

“Has the game changed? Yeah, they're trying to make it safer,” Lake said. “But I think if you watch Ryan Clark play, he's able to lay big hits using his shoulder, the top of the pads instead of the head. The referees get it wrong sometimes, but that's part of the game. I think you can still be an intimidating force back there. You just do it with the right technique.”

Don't tell Steelers receiver Jerricho Cotchery that secondaries are getting softer. He absorbed a wicked shot from Yeremiah Bell last week but held ont o the ball. He keeps his wits about him in enemy territory.

“I call it keeping your eyes on your luggage,” Cotchery said. “If you don't keep your eyes on your luggage, it's gonna get stolen.”

Cotchery has seen receivers run out of the league because they don't want to cross the middle.

“Intimidation is still a factor in the league,” he said.

Clark doesn't always sound convinced of that. He delivers as many shots to NFL commissioner Roger Goodell as he does to opposing receivers. Our conversation was no different when I told him of teammates calling him an enforcer.

“I think that's a little inaccurate,” Clark said, laughing. “They're just being nice to me. I play fast. I play hard. But I don't think Mr. Goodell is allowing any of us to be enforcers anymore.”

That came a few weeks after Clark said the NFL has devolved into “basketball with shoulder pads on.”

He knows that isn't totally true — and you better believe Santonio Holmes knows that, too. Clark at times turns himself into a missile. But he can wreck you cleanly, too.

“I mean, if the hit on Santonio was legal and fair, and if the hit on 87 (Konrad Reuland) was legal and fair, and if the cut on Shonn Greene on the sideline was legal, then I can still (be physical),” Clark said.“I'm working on it.”

Fear cuts both ways, by the way. Clark admits he is scared to death going into every game.

“I'm scared all the time,” he said. “I don't know about other people. Some guys are tougher than I am. Some guys don't get nervous. I still have to overcome the fear of being hurt when it's that split-second decision — do you go after it, or do you flinch and back off?”

We all know how Ryan Clark answers that. Again and again and again.

The Steelers' secondary remains a dangerous place to roam.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. He can be reached at

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