Steelers' Smith showcases intensity
It was hours before kickoff, and Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer was still in sweatpants as he warmed up at Paul Brown Stadium.
Despite the relaxed atmosphere, Palmer was so perturbed after Anthony Smith accidentally bumped into him that Palmer stopped what he was doing just to glare at the Steelers free safety. After Smith had finished talking with Cincinnati wide receiver Chad Johnson -- he had sought out the perennial Pro Bowler to remind him to wear his mouthpiece during the game -- Palmer said to Johnson, "Who is that?"
The story is significant for two reasons: Palmer certainly knew who Smith was after the Steelers had beaten the Bengals, 24-13. And defensive backs coach Ray Horton, who saw Palmer's stare-down, never would have told Smith about it a year or even a month ago, because it might have consumed the second-year professional and cost the Steelers at some point during the game.
"He is growing up. He's maturing. He's understanding that you can't just be a hothead all the time," Horton said of Smith. "If this kid were on another team, he'd be a star."
Smith has certainly had the look of one when he has gotten extended playing time.
Making his second start of the season on Sunday, Smith led the Steelers with eight tackles, and he laid several big licks on Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, Cincinnati's other prized wideout.
With Ryan Clark still recovering from a spleen condition -- he didn't practice Wednesday, and the Steelers are leaning toward resting the sixth-year veteran for another week -- Smith is expected to start Monday night against the Ravens.
The grudge match that should take place at Heinz Field is well suited for Smith, since there is always plenty of hitting and jawing between the fierce AFC North rivals.
He can come across as quiet off the field, but put the former Syracuse standout in a helmet and pads, and the transformation is "Jekyll and Hyde," Smith said with a smile.
Indeed, his mouth runs almost as fast as his legs when he is on the field, and Smith never stops trying to satisfy the constant cravings he apparently has for collisions.
"Once I get on the field you can't tell me anything," said Smith, a third-round draft pick by the Steelers in 2006. "I'm trying to hit everything."
The intensity that makes him a devastating hitter has also gotten the better of him at times, and Horton ticked off some of the transgressions that set Smith back as he battled Clark for the starting job at free safety during training camp.
"Kicking balls, throwing balls, yelling at guys," Horton said. "In this game, you have to have focused aggression."
Horton said he flatly told Smith during training camp that he wouldn't play if he didn't learn to control his temper.
Clark won the starting job in large part because he was more disciplined than Smith on the field but Horton said the latter has made considerable strides in channeling his considerable aggression.
Smith, however, said he hasn't really changed.
"They just got used to it, really," he said of the coaches.
There is no disputing that Smith is a playmaker, as evidenced by the two interceptions he had in four starts last season and the game he had against the Bengals.
Smith, who usually shares time with Clark at free safety, does most of his hitting in the secondary, but Horton said the 5-foot-11, 192-pounder could also be a dangerous pass rusher.
The Steelers simply don't blitz much with their free safeties -- they usually stay back in coverage -- since strong safety Troy Polamalu moves around so frequently.
"If we didn't have Troy," said Horton, who played 10 seasons in the NFL, "this kid would be a dominant blitzer. I've told him to look at (Eagles All-Pro safety) Brian Dawkins, because this kid is that type of player. He's a big, strong, fast, tough kid that can catch."