By Cian Fahey
If you ask any average football team to identify its most important piece, 95 percent of them will point to their starting quarterback. In a quarterback dominated league, most teams will do almost anything to land a franchise quarterback. It\’s the reason why the Washington Redskins made that massive trade with the St. Louis Rams this off-season for Robert Griffin III, why the Denver Broncos are investing so heavily in a 35-year-old Peyton Manning and why the Miami Dolphins willingly overdrafted Ryan Tannehill.
For some teams however, defining which part of the 53-man-roster is the most crucial has a more ambiguous answer. Nobody is going to argue that Alex Smith is the most important piece of the San Francisco 49ers, that title lies with Patrick Willis or Justin Smith, while the Houston Texans showed last year that they could go far without Matt Schaub.
When you have a sport that has 22 starters and many more role players, there are multiple players that your team relies on. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu are the two most important pieces on the field. With that there is no question, but what is more difficult to determine is who is more important entering this season.
The Steelers lost in the first round of the playoffs for many reasons last season, but Roethlisberger\’s limitations after that injury against the Cleveland Browns was likely the difference between winning and losing. Not only did Roethlisberger\’s ineffectiveness in the game itself hurt the team, but also without him at 100 percent the Steelers had no chance against the 49ers in Week 15. That loss altered their journey in the playoffs.
However, entering this season, Polamalu\’s performances will be more significant for the Steelers\’ chances of success.
Prior to last season, Dave compiled some statistics about the Steelers defense with/without Polamalu in the lineup. While the Steelers were as stingy of a defense without Polamalu as they were with him, it is the difference between the interception ratio, almost twice as many with Polamalu as without, that separates the two groups.
Turnovers were a major issue for the Steelers defense last year with Polamalu in the lineup. The strong safety had two interceptions himself as part of a measly 11 for the team as a whole. That was “good” enough to rank the team tied for eighth worst in the league. For a secondary that gave up the least yards last year, that is not what you expect.
For Polamalu personally, he was healthy, but he was also coming off a season when he played through significant injury issues all the way to the Super Bowl. Just going by the eyeball test, it was possible that lingering effects from that injury affected his performance throughout the year. At 30 years of age, it can take substantially more time to find your comfort zone rebounding from major injuries.
It is one thing to be fully healthy and another to be at your full level of performance.
The Steelers will need Polamalu to be at his best this season as there is a lot of change with the defense. There is significant change on offense also, but the offensive line can\’t get that much worse and the running back situation appears to be manageable. The key term for the Steelers entering this season on both sides of the ball is growing pains.
On offense, the group will undoubtedly experience some growing pains adjusting to Todd Haley\’s offensive gameplan. On defense, there are multiple younger players stepping into greater roles. Keenan Lewis, Cortez Allen and Curtis Brown may have more talent than William Gay, but none are as proven or experienced. Larry Foote should have no problem returning to the starting lineup, but the defensive line will be relying on players like Steve McLendon, Alameda Ta\’amu and even Cameron Heyward to step up.
Every player stepping into a new role is talented, in some cases exceptionally, but every player in the NFL is talented so that does not mean they will have instant success. Turnovers are a great way of covering the cracks in a defense and supporting a new offense.
With one momentum swinging play, all the minor errors in a series or repeated offensive futility on a drive can be overcome.
For that reason, the Steelers need Polamalu to excel next season more than they need Roethlisberger to. The Steelers offense should be less reliant on Roethlisberger in a new scheme because the offensive skill positions are littered with talent and the offensive line should be improving.
When Polamalu is at his best, the Steelers defense is not only the best in the league, it is completely dominant. Just like in 2008 a healthy Polamalu would likely allow the Steelers offense to focus on not losing games rather than going out to win them with all guns blazing.
If Roethlisberger has an average season, and Polamalu is an MVP candidate, the Steelers\’ chances of winning a Super Bowl would be much greater than if Roethlisberger is an MVP candidate and Polamalu has an average season. The reason being is that a number of teams have quarterbacks on or above Roethlisberger\’s level, but nobody has a defensive player who can match Polamalu\’s effect on a game when he is at his best.
The offensive arsenal may have a greater stock than ever for the Steelers entering this season, but as long as James Harrison, Ryan Clark, LaMarr Woodley, Ike Taylor, Lawrence Timmons and Polamalu are on the other side of the field, this is still a defense first team.
As such, the mercurial safety is the most important Steelers player entering this season.
Follow Cian on Twitter at @Cianaf