Can Troy Polamalu Still Be A Game-Changer?

By Jeremy Hritz

Troy Polamalu has cemented his legacy with the Pittsburgh Steelers, and he will forever be remembered as one of the best to don the black and gold uniform. His knack for game changing plays, none more famous than the interception for a touchdown in the 2008 AFC Championship Game, and his peerless skill set, make him a once in a lifetime player that will sorely be missed one day by the Steelers organization and fans alike.

Soon, Polamalu will be entering his tenth NFL season at 31 years of age, long removed from the young man that was selected 16th overall by the Steelers in the 2003 NFL Draft. As brutal as it is to accept, Polamalu’s time in Pittsburgh is slowly reaching its conclusion.

History says that Hall of Fame safeties, which Polamalu will eventually become, play an average of 15 seasons. The 49ers Ronnie Lott played for 15 seasons; Ken Houston, who played for the Oilers and Redskins, played for 14 seasons; and Brian Dawkins, who played for the Eagles and Broncos, and Paul Krause, who played for the Redskins and Vikings, both played for 16 seasons. If there is any merit to this, fans can expect Polamalu to play for four to five years after the 2012 season.

But just how effective will Polamalu be this coming season, and the final few seasons of his career?

While Polamalu has always been known as a linebacker/defensive back hybrid that makes unrivaled stops in the running game, his abilities in coverage are not commensurate, as the element of his game that makes him great, his aggressiveness and risk-taking, can make him a liability. What’s more is that following his achievement of Defensive Player of the Year, Polamalu seemed to be off of his game, and in the Super Bowl against the Green Bay Packers, his performance was quiet, as Aaron Rodgers and company had their way with Steelers’ secondary. In that game, Polamalu recorded only three tackles, and he gave up two touchdown receptions to wide receiver Greg Jennings. After the game, in typical Polamalu fashion, he accepted complete responsibility for his performance. Yet high character or not, the Steelers still lost out on capturing a seventh Lombardi, and had Polamalu made the plays that he had a reputation for making, the outcome of the game could have been completely different.

Polamalu followed up his poor play in the Super Bowl with a decent year in 2011, but one that lacked his signature splash plays. He also appeared a step slower in coverage, specifically against Baltimore in week one when covering Ed Dickson, and when covering A.J. Green in the first matchup against Cincinnati on the road. Unsurprisingly, he still remained effective against the run.

Whether or not these types of performances are now the standard has yet to be seen.

Polamalu’s past injuries are also variables in not only his future performance, but also his longevity. An Achilles issue aggravated him near the end of the season in 2010, and just a year before, he practically missed the entire 2009 season with a knee injury, playing in only five games. What is more of a concern is Polamalu’s concussion history which dates back to his days at USC, and the concussion-like symptoms he experienced against the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Kansas City Chiefs in 2011. With the stringency the NFL is placing on how teams handle concussions, and with new fears emerging regarding the long-term effects, especially after the suicide of Junior Seau, Polamalu could think twice before stepping back on the field if he experiences another concussion.

Polamalu is by no means washed up, and even if his skills have diminished slightly, he is still better than 90% of safeties in the NFL. He has become one of the most, if not the most, beloved Steeler of the past nine years whose name is not Hines Ward. This coming Tuesday, Polamalu will likely attend OTAs, something that he has passed on in previous years to train at home in California. Hopefully his arrival in Pittsburgh finds him rested and ready to get to work with his teammates for next season. And hopefully in the process, he can rediscover his knack for the big play.

  • Phantaskippy

    Polomalu will last that long if he and the defense can move him into a more traditional safety role. If they restrict him to an area of teh field, since he no longer can cover all of it he can dominate that area.

    To do that will put a bigger burden on our FS. Hopefully Clark or someone younger can step up and allow Troy a more restricted role, so he can flourish.

  • Akyourasea

    Polomalu was hampered severely in the Super Bowl versus Green Bay with the Achilles injury that had plagued him most of the year. Speaking as one who has had this injury, it takes months of complete rest to get back to full speed. He would not use it as an excuse – which is his way. His lack of splash plays last season was mostly a lack of pass rush to force throws more quickly (injuries to Harrison and Woodley being the main culprit). I suspect that we will see a Polomalu that is near the top of his game this year, if injuries can be avoided.

  • SteelerDave

    Polamalu is indeed aging and no longer able to be the dominant safety he has been for us. He is becoming a liability in pass coverage but he can still blitz and stop a run game. His role needs to change to go with his age. We desperately need a young and talented safety early in next seasons draft who can step in on passing downs as he is groomed to fully replace Troy perhaps as soon as 2014. Also adding a highly talented CB would help Troy not to have to cover guys as often. Steelers, you addressed our O-line for the future in this draft, next season please draft a Safety and CB in the top two or three rounds.

    Another thing not mentioned here is that Polamalu’s style of play and his strengths were great for the way offenses were once dominant. Now the league is so much more pass oriented that Troy in his older form is not as effective, it is playing against his style.

    Use troy on 1st and 2nd downs and only on some 3rd downs if the yards to go is less than 4. Let him kill the run games and blitz at will but ask him to cover on mid to deep routes and he is simply no longer able to be an elite performer.

  • SteelerDave

    I agree about the Super Bowl loss but only partially agree about this past season. Yes a lack of a pass rush from Harrison and Woodley did hurt Troy in his effectiveness but I would further say the poorer play by most of D-line also contributed.

    As much as I love Polamalu his speed is not what it once was even if his instincts are still elite. Yes we had a great pass defense last season but both our safeties are not built for pass defense, they are built for tackling in the run game and blitzing. The style of our safeties must change to compete with the leagues elite passing teams in my view. Sadly, Troy and Clark are both older and not able to play against the pass like they once were.

  • TrueSteelerForLife

    I think taking Polamalu off the field on third down situations is the worst idea that has ever been discussed on this site, period. Polamalu is still one of the best safeties in the league, and will still perform on a high level if he’s healthy. He’s a gamechanger and a playmaker and is underrated in coverage. Big year coming for Troy!

  • Tennbob

    Cornerback HAS been addressed. Their names are Curtis Brown and Cortez Allen.

  • Jprankster2005

    When he signed his contract last yr. he said it will be nice to finish my career as a Steeler….. With that said I think he’s not the same guy as he was 2 yrs. ago but is still good enough to be a game changer…….. And will probably retire after these next 3 yrs…….. Which he will still be young……But he does have business opurtunites…… I hope he plays out the next 3 yrs. and can be the best or 2nd best safety all 3 yrs…… And we will retire his number hopefully and he will be a first ballot Hall Of Famer……..

  • Ressler Craig

    I agree, address S and CB in the first two rounds!

  • Shannon Stephenson

    No questin Polo is showing age…The difference between a Lott or Houston like mentioned…their style of play wasnt like Polo’s who depends more on athletism…when that disappears…which he is already showing signs…he will be greatly diminished as a player…last year was a good insight to what we should expect for the next 2 years…I love Polo but we should be looking for his replacement in the next draft.

  • Glorious foster

    Troy might be slowing to some small degree,or he might have had a few bad games.Troy is still in the top five.The steeler D is also in the top five in most cases.Defense is not the problem with my steelers,but failure to score points.Problems in the red zone,Big ben trying to keep plays alive and fumbling in the back field.Big Ben can’t reach his fastest reciever.Big Ben interception to touchdown ratio leaves a lot to be desired.I believe Art Rooney have seen these problems and have demanded a tweaking.I’m not sure what will happen if Roethlisberger can’t take his game to the next level.What ever happen with the steelers ,blame is not on the defense.

  • RedCarpetDefense

    There does seem to be some really good talent at the Safety position in next year’s draft. Hopefully the Steelers can address the secondary with a 1st round S or CB if one is there. Lets see how this season plays out with the guys we have.