When Pittsburgh Steelers Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu spent the early portions of his offseason back home working out on his own, rather than attending spring OTAs, the coaches turned to veteran Will Allen to take the reps at strong safety, as he did in 2012, in the process passing over second-year safety Shamarko Thomas.
When free agent signing Mike Mitchell was forced to start training camp on the PUP list, they again turned to Allen, whom the Steelers re-signed quickly after letting him test free agency a year ago, to plug in to the free safety role.
Then, when Polamalu sat out the first set of 11-on-11 drills in practice yesterday, during the tackling session, it was Robert Golden who came in, lining up next to Allen, as the back end of the starting defense.
Thomas was inserted into the first-team defense intermittently throughout the rest of the 11-on-11 drills later on.
In other words, don’t read too much into what you’re seeing right now. Especially in the early portions of training camp, the coaching staff is experimenting, testing their players to find out what they have—especially with young and inexperienced players such as Thomas and Golden.
No, this doesn’t all mean that Thomas has been a disappointment ever since he twisted his ankle trying to tackle Stevie Johnson against the Buffalo Bills during a Week 10 matchup, after which he didn’t play another snap on defense.
Nor does this mean that he is being blown past on the depth chart by the other reserve safeties. If anything, it’s a sign that the Steelers are anticipating a bright future for the hard-hitting 5’9” safety who bears the nickname “Headache”.
As defensive backs coach Carnell Lake recently told Jim Wexell, “I think in some ways it’s a little bit of a blessing for Shamarko [that Allen can still play] because he can learn from these guys, and when he hits the ground running it’s going to be exciting to watch”.
Polamalu must have also felt similarly about Thomas’ potential, because he was the first teammate that the veteran safety took back with him during the offseason to train with. But looking forward to a prosperous tomorrow doesn’t necessarily equate to a gradual incline of playing time.
In fact, Lake also told Wexell that he has Thomas focusing on his natural position this year rather than worrying about lining up as a nickel corner, which is where the majority of his playing time as a rookie came from.
“He’s playing pure safety right now, and I think that’s really good for him. Last year with the calls that safeties are required to give to the defense to help guys get lined up, to make the adjustments when receivers go in motion, it’s like night and day for Shamarko”.
Thomas agreed; “it was just a fast game”, he said of last season, “and there were a lot of things going through your head, not only on the field, but off the field, too. So this year, everything has slowed down, and I’m stable, I’m relaxed and I’m calm, just ready to play”.
Even if he has seemingly been passed over here and there this offseason to step into the first-team defense while one starter or another was out of the lineup, that shouldn’t be read as an indication of where he is in his development. Especially considering, as I mentioned earlier, the coaching staff is experimenting with personnel during this time of the year.