Polamalu's return could be Tuesday
Sunday, August 17, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Peter Diana / Post-Gazett
The much-criticized Steelers' first-team defense receives a boost with the likely return of playmaker Troy Polamalu to practice Tuesday.
The Steelers will close shop at Saint Vincent College today, and injured safety Troy Polamalu will return home without pulling on the pads to practice with his teammates in training camp.
His status, however, should change in a few days. He is expected to come off the physically unable to perform list and start practicing Tuesday, maybe play a little Saturday night in Minnesota.
"Troy had a nice day running today," coach Mike Tomlin said after practice yesterday. "We'll run him again tomorrow. Hopefully ... we'll get him out there to practice on Tuesday."
No one will be happier if that occurs than defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who welcomed the return of another Pro Bowler, nose tackle Casey Hampton, last week.
"We just got Casey back last week and we're hoping we can get Troy back pretty soon," LeBeau said. "Sooner's always better than later."
Polamalu reported to training camp with a hamstring injury, and Tomlin placed him on the PUP. His stay away from the practice field lingered this long for two reasons: He re-injured his hamstring by pushing too hard to get back, and the coach is being extra cautious with his four-time Pro Bowl strong safety.
"The thing was, they wanted him to kind of rest it and he wanted to be back so bad he pushed it a little too hard in rehab," said free safety Ryan Clark. "So he'll be all right."
LeBeau, Clark and the rest of the defense hope so because a healthy Polamalu makes a big difference.
"He's pretty much the catalyst of what we do," said Clark. "The reason we are able to do the things we do so well is his ability to disguise and be athletic enough to get where he has to be.
"I think also from a psyche standpoint and preparation standpoint for offenses, he's a guy you have to prepare for. There are probably only a few guys in the league on defense you have to scheme for, and I think Troy's one of those guys, and that helps us out a lot."
Linebacker James Harrison, the team's MVP last season, voiced his concern about the way the defense has played through two preseason games. Offenses scored three times on four possessions against the Steelers' first-team defense, including two touchdowns on two drives Thursday night by Buffalo.
Perhaps Polamalu's presence would have made a difference.
"He means a lot, especially from a secondary standpoint," cornerback Bryant McFadden said. "When you play opposing offenses, they really have to account for him and take note where he is at all times. He does so many positive things out there for the secondary and the defense, just the chemistry he brings to the table. He makes so many plays from a coverage standpoint, blitzing and turnovers."
But, as McFadden put it, would you rather have Polamalu playing the first two preseason games and risk him having hamstring problems in the regular season? Or have a healthy Polamalu for 16 regular-season games?
Polamalu played through injuries that included rib, knee and stomach in 2007 and had an off season, for him, although he still was selected for the Pro Bowl. He returned to train in California with Marv Marinovich this spring for the first time in two years and felt he was in tip-top shape until the hamstring injury developed the week before training camp.
"Everybody knows a hamstring is a nagging thing," Clark said. "Maybe a guy like me with a hamstring, I could do it. But with the way Troy plays, so explosive, so many quick movements within the box and constantly fighting off blockers and stuff like that, he needs to be at full health."
LeBeau said Polamalu gives the Steelers a tremendous advantage before the snap of the ball. Quarterbacks are taught to read the safeties, but that's almost impossible against Polamalu because he's so quick he can line up on one side of the field and get to the other by the time of the snap.
"Sometimes, he'll scare you because you'll feel like where he is he can't get to where he's supposed to be," Clark said. "But he always does."
That style of play requires plenty of communication between Polamalu and Clark. Trouble is, Polamalu doesn't talk much.
"We have a weird relationship," Clark said. "If you'd have told me we'd be such good friends by this point, I wouldn't have believed it because he barely spoke to me the first few weeks I was here.
"But he's cool. He doesn't have to tell me what he's doing. He knows that whatever he does, I'll figure out what it is and I'll do the opposite to make sure the defense fits."
"It just happens from us playing together," Clark said. "Sometimes, Troy will point, and you have to know what the point means. Sometime, he'll give you a signal behind his back, and you have to know what that means. Sometimes, he won't do anything, and you have to figure that out, too."
It's why LeBeau hopes to have Polamalu back on the field soon.
"It's just the timing and the integrating," LeBeau said.
"Every year, you have a different mix. We have different guys in that huddle than we had last year, and each guy has to get a feel for how each guy fits, and that's always something that's better to have practice at. More is better."
Within a few days, more in the form of Polamalu should take the practice field.
Ed Bouchette can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.