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Clark was their safety valve

He bailed out Steelers with pair of turnovers

Steelers safety Ryan Clark returns a second-half interception in Sunday’s playoff victory over the Ravens. Steelers safety Ryan Clark returns a second-half interception in Sunday’s playoff victory over the Ravens. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
By Michael Vega
Globe Staff / January 19, 2011

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PITTSBURGH — An awkward silence hung over the Pittsburgh Steelers locker room at Heinz Field. It was halftime of last Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens, Pittsburgh’s bitter AFC North rivals. Thanks to a pair of costly second-quarter turnovers that led to Baltimore scores, the Steelers were facing a 21-7 deficit.

Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau huddled with his players and told them something had to be done.

Someone had to make plays.

“He said at halftime that the difference was the two turnovers that their defense had created for their offense and the field position that they had going in, and were able to make plays,’’ said Steelers free safety Ryan Clark. “So we had to do something to make a turnaround. And we did.’’

While Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu usually gets top billing in the Steelers secondary, Clark, a ninth-year veteran out of Louisiana State, took it upon himself to provide the spark Pittsburgh was lacking in what became a 31-24 victory.

Clark forced Ray Rice to fumble at his own 23 on Baltimore’s first possession of the second half. Then, on the first play of Baltimore’s third possession, Clark intercepted Joe Flacco’s overthrown pass to Todd Heap and returned it 17 yards to the Ravens’ 25.

The plays were part of a third-quarter frenzy by Pittsburgh’s defense that forced three turnovers, resulting in a pair of touchdown passes by Ben Roethlisberger and a 35-yard field goal by Shaun Suisham.

“It was embarrassing,’’ Clark said of the first-half deficit. “All this talk about it being a 3-point game all the time [vs. the Ravens], it always being close, but we were getting blown out. I think the biggest thing was coming out and playing for each other. And then we made some plays.

Clark’s timely contributions helped the Steelers earn their 15th appearance in the AFC Championship game. On Sunday they will host the New York Jets, who advanced by knocking out the top-seeded Patriots in Foxborough, 28-21.

“Ryan doesn’t get a lot of attention outside of our locker room because he plays with some great players, like Troy Polamalu and others,’’ said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin. “If you ask anybody in our locker room and you watch us work at practice at our facility, this guy is a leader. He is respected by his teammates.

“And that’s why it was so important that we got him back here when he was a free agent last offseason. We just love Ryan Clark.’’

Clark, who originally signed as a free agent with Pittsburgh in March 2006 after spending two seasons in Washington, signed a four-year extension last March. It was a transaction that paid dividends this season when Clark ranked third on the team with 122 tackles (66 solo) to go along with two interceptions, seven pass break-ups, and a fumble recovery.

Polamalu was fifth on the team in tackles (82), but led the team in interceptions with seven for 101 return yards. He was slowed at season’s end by an ankle injury that forced him to miss the last two games of the regular season, thrusting Clark into more of a leadership role.

But in no way, Clark pointed out, does that suggest that he and Polamalu are interchangeable.

“I’m never going to be that guy, no,’’ Clark said. “But the position is interchangeable. You talk about two guys who have played together for a number of years now, played this defense for a long time. We can interchange and do things, but he does things a different way than I do.

“But as far as the play call goes, we just play whatever we want as long as one safety is doing what is drawn up and the other is doing the other thing. We just go around and kind of make a decision on our own.’’

When Polamalu returned to play the Ravens, he seemed all but invisible (save for a glaring missed tackle on Rice’s 14-yard TD run in the first quarter) by Clark’s standout play. Clark, though, dispelled any notion that Polamalu’s role had changed.

“The plays he’s made, he’s always been in the spot he’s supposed to be in, by defensive design,’’ Clark said. “But what that does, on the plays he’s not making, it’s not leaving a void for us. There are no areas we have to cover up because he’s doing certain things. He’s just playing defense, being in positions that Coach LeBeau puts him in. When he gets his opportunity to make plays, he’s going to do that.

“He’s going to be Troy. But the thing he did this week, he was always where he was supposed to be, and that was big for us.’’

Clark knows all hands will have to be on deck against the Jets and their dangerous receiving corps, which was bolstered this season by the acquisition of former Steelers wideout Santonio Holmes, the MVP of Pittsburgh’s victory in Super Bowl XLIII. But, as Clark noted, if there’s one common denominator among the four surviving teams, it’s defense.

“Defense is important, clearly, unless you have a team that is going to outscore everybody you play, and I think that’s what New England was kind of doing for a while,’’ Clark said. “Their defense wasn’t the best, but they were able to hold enough because they always put up so many points.

“But in the end, you need to be solid on defense, need to give your offense the ball in good field position, and I think that’s what these defenses have been doing.

“The way the Jets played defense against New England, [Darrelle] Revis getting a lot of balls out and tackling well and getting pressure on Tom Brady, that’s what you need.

“Some games you are going to be able to outscore the other team, but when it comes down to it, you have to stop people from putting the ball in the end zone.’’

Michael Vega can be reached at vega@globe.com.

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