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Future looks to be uncertain for Steelers veteran safety Clark

| Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 10:03 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Former Steelers safety Ryan Clark said he isn’t “bitter” the Steelers didn’t re-sign him and that wide receiver Antonio Brown isn’t “smart enough” to realize what a good teammate Clark was.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin talks with free saftey Ryan Clark during the Bengals game on Monday, Sept. 16, 2013, at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

Ryan Clark knows no matter how impressive his numbers — or even whether the Steelers beat the odds and make the postseason — there's a strong possibility he'll play his last game at Heinz Field on Sunday.

Clark is maybe a step or two slower, but his football IQ forces teams to account for his whereabouts. He quietly has amassed 58 solo tackles, 43 assists and two interceptions.

In a season in which the defense has leaned on several young players, including rookies Jarvis Jones and Shamarko Thomas, the 34-year-old Clark weathered an early-season bout of inconsistency and the inevitable pains of longevity.

“I respect how (Clark) sacrifices his body,” Jones said. “He plays lights-out all the time. Everybody loves and respects him for it.”

The Steelers (7-8) face the Cleveland Browns (4-11) in their regular-season finale with a chance to recover from an 0-4 start. Clark helped the Steelers maintain focus when their playoff chances appeared to be doomed.

“The cool part about it is that after being counted out so many times, we have a chance to do something good,” Clark said Thursday. “You see around this league how teams were out of it early sort of packed it in.

“I think about losing to Oakland, Tennessee and Minnesota, games we should have won. We are better than those teams on paper. It says a lot about this team and that Coach (Mike) Tomlin didn't lose the locker room.”

Now Clark finds himself fighting for his job. Thomas and Robert Golden will be among those vying for the job at free safety next season.

Clark said he can't imagine playing with any other team.

“I've been in this business long enough and in other uniforms enough to understand that things change and players move on,” said Clark, who in 2011 made the Pro Bowl after amassing a team-high 100 tackles. “There's a chance that no one will want me next season. I may not play at all because I'll be going into my 13th year and approaching 35 years old, and a lot of guys that age don't get many chances to play in this league.

“I definitely think I can still contribute to this team because I still get to the ball and I'm blessed to be healthy. I'm not an older guy who misses a lot of playing time.”

Clark has been beaten on occasions, but he also has been around the ball, especially during the Steelers' 7-4 stretch that vaulted them into the playoff picture.

Still, there's a possibility the Steelers will continue to transition to younger players. So Clark finds himself in a similar position that led to the departures of Casey Hampton, James Harrison, James Farrior and Willie Colon.

“After a while, (management figures) the end is coming,” said Clark, who during the past four seasons has missed only one game. “If it isn't now, maybe it's next year. They have to prepare themselves to move on from you.

“They knew Casey could still contribute, considering how he impacted the run game as well as anyone in the NFL. The same can be said about (Harrison) because he can still play football, but they felt like they could get younger players cheaper and they would be looking toward the future.”

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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