PITTSBURGH – Ben Roethlisberger lined up under center for the first play Wednesday and eyeballed No. 21.
Both of them.
But Roethlisberger knew which No. 21 was free safety Ryan Clark and which one was strong safety Robert Golden.
“I know R.C. well,” said Roethlisberger.
Was anyone confused?
“You just listen for the one that’s talking,” said Brett Keisel. “That’s Ryan.”
The one who was talking was doing a pretty good job directing the kid, Golden, who had just moved in with the first team to replace Troy Polamalu. Clark was even amusing at times.
“This ain’t Texas!” Clark hollered at rookie quarterback Landry Jones as Jones called signals. “This ain’t the Red River Shootout!”
Clark, of course, wears No. 21 at practice in honor of the late Sean Taylor, his slain former teammate. Golden wears No. 21 because that’s the number he wanted coming out of Arizona as an undrafted free agent last season.
Golden was a cornerback, but Coach Mike Tomlin saw something in him and moved him to safety under the pseudonym “Little Dawk,” as in Brian Dawkins, the former great with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Golden made the team and played in 15 games, mostly on special teams. He eventually played defense in two late games.
His first, against the Dallas Cowboys, was an intense overtime loss, but Golden was complimented publicly by Steelers coordinator Dick LeBeau a few days later. Golden also played defense in the finale against the Cleveland Browns.
“It was a surreal feeling,” Golden said of the Cowboys game. “Then we had a little blown coverage. We didn’t get the stretch call. They had two verticals up the seam and we were in a cover 3 and kind of back playing between both and couldn’t make that play.”
The Cowboys' Jason Witten scored a touchdown on the play, but the action gave Golden a base from which to work coming into this season. And the Steelers have so much faith in him that they let both of their backup safeties leave in free agency.
Yesterday’s practice affirmed the expectation that Golden would be the coaching staff’s No. 3 safety ahead of Damon Cromartie-Smith and fourth-round pick Shamarko Thomas.
Does Golden believe he’s a better player heading into his second season?
“Of course,” he said. “I felt as a rookie that I played very well. We ran a lot of similar things at Arizona, just different terminology, so I was able to pick up the playbook very well. Now it’s just a matter of going out there and executing the plays and knowing what to do and be able to make plays.”
“He was definitely a pleasant surprise last year,” Clark said. “I’m an undrafted guy so I definitely don’t look at those guys like they can’t make the team, they can’t be helpful. But here was a guy who played three positions for us last year, as a rookie, as an undrafted guy, a guy who got game time – real-life game time. So this year it’s about him ascending. It’s about him showing, ‘Hey, I’m good enough to be that third guy when you draft a Shamarko.’ He’s a guy who jumps off the film talent-wise, speed-wise. What Rob has to do is show the jump as far as knowledge, dependability, durability. That’s how the game works. When you draft a guy, you want to see him play, so Rob has to show them that he belongs out there.”
Clark said that Golden actually isn’t all that quiet, that he’s actually the second most vocal safety on the team behind – well, Clark’s clearly the undefeated champ back there.
And, yes, his Red River comment was intended for the rookie quarterback from Oklahoma, but it wasn’t just a derisive hoot.
“We had to let him know, man, that this is a different level,” Clark said. “Leadership can be done in all kind of different ways. I did it jokingly to mess with him. What I wanted him to do was bark his calls out. I wanted him to have authority in his voice when he was making his no-huddle calls, and I thought that was a way to kind of mess with him to let him know that that’s not going to get it.”
Did it work?
“It didn’t. I think he ended up being too late throwing the ball. But, hey, it’s just all about having fun and enjoying being out here.”
With a pair of 21s moving up and back, playing both the strong and free safety spots, who wasn’t having fun?