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Youthful Steelers defensive backs learning on the fly

| Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013, 11:24 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers saftey Sharmarko Thomas (29) and Robert Golden play agaist the Redskins, Monday, August 19, 2013, at FedEx Field.

Ryan Clark has high praise for the Steelers' young defensive backs, including rookies Shamarko Thomas and Terry Hawthorne. Yet he'd rather they spend much of this season watching and learning.

Besides, if either Thomas or second-year safety Robert Golden are tossed into the fray, it could reflect that the league's oldest safety tandem, Clark and Troy Polamalu, are struggling physically.

“As a tandem, we are in the best shape we've ever been in,” Clark said. “It bodes well for us and the Steelers if we can stay healthy.

“When you're looking at Shamarko and Terry, we're hoping those guys don't have to get on the field this year. I'm hoping Shamarko doesn't have to play because 43 (Polamalu) and 25 (Clark) will be healthy.

“Eventually, they have to get us out of here. Collectively, the organization is getting guys who can play. Right now, it's not that time.”

Polamalu and Clark have a combined 23 years of experience. Their potential backups, Thomas and Golden, have only a season-worth of experience.

Even though the young cornerbacks have some playing time, Hawthorne might be forced into action if oft-injured Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown can't make it through the season unscathed.

However, recent injuries to Clark and Polamalu have given the coaching staff concern about their durability. Clark missed only one game last year, but he absorbed some damaging blows. Polamalu sat out nine games last season with a calf injury.

The Steelers addressed injuries and age during the NFL Draft. They invested fourth- and fifth-round picks on Thomas and Hawthorne, respectively.

“We plan and hope we'll be healthy all year long,” said Polamalu, in his 11th season. “We have a lot of confidence in those guys. Frankly, there's a possibility they will be the future of this team. The stage is certainly set for them.”

Golden, who plays strong and free safety, made the squad as an undrafted free agent. He has had a productive preseason to perhaps solidify a spot on the 53-man roster for the season opener against Tennessee on Sept. 8 at Heinz Field.

“If I was a coach, Robert Golden is no longer fighting for a roster spot,” Clark said. “I would say Golden has been the best defensive back in camp, including myself and Troy. He has shown his value on special teams and defensively.”

Golden isn't taking anything for granted as the Steelers prepare to face the Chiefs on Saturday night at Heinz Field ahead of Tuesday's first mandatory roster cuts.

“I have to compete every day, and that's my motivation,” Golden said. “I've got to prove myself every day. I feel I can step if Troy or (Clark) were to go down. I'll make sure I get the job done.”

Thomas, who had a game-high six tackles in a 24-13 loss to Washington on Monday, has gotten most everyone's attention. Hawthorne has missed much of training camp, so it's been difficult to evaluate his progress.

“It was a matter of studying the playbook and staying sharp mentally during the time I was down,” Hawthorne said before Thursday's practice. “I'm just waiting for my time to show what I can do when the time comes.”

Clark believes Thomas and Hawthorne will be prepared to play when their numbers are called.

Still, he would rather the Steelers exercise patience with their young defensive backs.

“Troy and I will make sure they understand what to do,” Clark said. “Shamarko can definitely help us, but we haven't seen enough of Terry to make an assessment yet.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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