Wednesday, December 21, 2005

It was only one tackle in the third game of the season, but it kick-started one of Ryan Clark’s most important days as an NFL safety.

After missing the Washington Redskins’ first two games with a knee injury, Clark was on the field when Seattle ran its first play. Right away, he recognized what was coming: a quick pass from Matt Hasselbeck to Bobby Engram. Clark charged forward and made the tackle, limiting Engram to a 5-yard gain.

A ho-hum play? Hardly.

“I went into the game questioning myself,” Clark recalled yesterday at Redskin Park. “I had been through a lot in the preseason with two knee injuries. Would I play physical enough with my knees banged up? Would I recognize things they were doing? But with that play, it was a defining day because I was chosen to be the starter as opposed to starting because somebody got hurt.”

Aside from one missed game because of a spleen injury, Clark hasn’t left the Redskins’ starting lineup since and is having a second consecutive solid season. Entering Saturday’s game against the New York Giants, Clark has 48 tackles and two interceptions. Coupled with his 81 tackles last year, the former undrafted free agent from LSU has made a rapid rise after being unemployed on the eve of 2004 training camp.

“I’m thankful for the situation I’m in because I could be someplace backing up and playing special teams,” he said. “It’s definitely a long way from where I was to where I am now, starting on a defense that’s playing pretty well. I mean, a long way.”

Clark is making $455,000 this year but should be in line for a raise when he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season.

“Absolutely, he’ll get a lot of [attention],” safeties coach Steve Jackson said. “Hopefully, we can afford to keep him here, but everything he gets, he deserves. I can see a lot of teams going after him because he works hard and does everything you ask of him.”

The Redskins are expected to try to re-sign Clark but not at a huge price.

“I don’t think about it too much, but the one thing I know is that if we win games and play well on defense, things will take care of [themselves],” Clark said. “I love it here, and we’ll take care of that when the time comes. I’m not greedy — I won’t go in there and act like that. I want to be here, and if they want me to be here, there’s no question I’ll be a part of this team.”

Clark played two seasons for the Giants (2002 and 2003) and signed with the Redskins as an afterthought — “a practice body,” he says — July31, 2004.

“I didn’t know if he was going to make it or not, to be honest,” Jackson said. “He was a little bit out of shape, and he had a long way to go.”

Jackson’s opinion changed when Clark picked up the Redskins’ complicated defense.

“He didn’t make a lot of mistakes, and he asked good questions,” Jackson said. “He got into shape, picked up the fundamentals of what we were trying to do quicker than most and played aggressive. And that was the main thing we look for — if he was playing aggressive, we thought we could iron out the other things.”

Clark gained the starting job last season after Matt Bowen sustained a season-ending knee injury against Baltimore in Week 5. Almost instantly, Clark made an impact. One of his 12 tackles against the Ravens was a hat-on-hat smack of running back Jamal Lewis, who is 40 pounds heavier than Clark.

“He’s a physical guy,” Jackson said. “He has the intentions of being physical, and if he was [Sean Taylor’s] size, you would see even more physical play from him. For a guy his size, he’s as physical as he can be.”

The two knee injuries cost Clark this year’s first two games. But when Pierson Prioleau injured his hamstring against Dallas, Clark was chosen over Bowen to start against Seattle. Clark’s tackles are down this year because he is being asked to play more coverage than run support.

“I think I’ve been better than last year because mentally I’m helping guys more,” he said. “Last year the coaches would compliment me for being smart, but I really didn’t have a good grasp for the defense.”

Clark’s interception against Philadelphia in Week 9 sealed a 17-10 win, and he had a career-high 11 tackles against the Giants. But that was in a 36-0 defeat. Remembering what happened at the Meadowlands on Oct. 30 and realizing what’s on the line, Clark has a good grasp of Saturday’s stakes.

“I’d be lying if I told you that game wasn’t in the back of our minds,” he said. “There are a lot of things that get you motivated for a game like this, but we definitely remember what happened.”

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