Today, Wednesday the 28th of November, 2012, Troy Polamalu practiced fully with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Polamalu has been dealing with a calf injury all season, so much so that he hasn’t appeared in a game since Week 5 and has only played in two games in total all season. Polamalu started on opening night against the Denver Broncos, but had a poor game as Peyton Manning manipulated his defense around the star safety. Against the Philadelphia Eagles in his last game, Polamalu wasn’t a factor, likely because of his injury issue.
Polamalu’s only tape from this season doesn’t suit his career’s reputation. He was a non-factor both against the run and in coverage because of Manning’s intelligence. Now that Polamalu is set to return to the field, he has every opportunity to erase the bad taste of that performance and return to being an impact playmaker. The type of player that he has been throughout his career. Against the Baltimore Ravens this weekend, a big game from Polamalu could be the difference in who leaves M&T Bank Stadium with a victory.
Yet, Polamalu’s poor play can’t simply be ignored from earlier this season, so why should his return from a severe injury be met with any greater optimism than it was when he entered the season? Importantly, the Steelers won’t face another quarterback on Manning’s level of intelligence or accuracy on their remaining schedule. Games against Joe Flacco, Philip Rivers, Tony Romo, Andy Dalton and Brandon Weeden should give Polamalu opportunities to make big plays.
Polamalu has a history of forcing turnovers against Flacco, while both Rivers and Romo are prone to big mistakes at times. Dalton has been somewhat inconsistent throughout the season as a whole, while Weeden is a rookie who had multiple interceptions dropped this past week against the Steelers, not including a pick six that was tipped to Lawrence Timmons. Polamalu’s presence alone is a problem for opposing offenses, but his ability to get his hands on the football is something that is lacking from the defense without him on the field.
Significantly in that Broncos’ game, the Steelers’ cornerbacks were also not playing to the level that they are right now. Keenan Lewis, Ike Taylor and Cortez Allen in the slot have been dominating their assignments in recent weeks. Even without Polamalu, the Steelers lead the league in passing yards giving up just 165.7 per game, a full 20 yards less per game than second place and exactly 35 less than third.
They also lead the league in average yards per play given up, 5.9, and have given up the least amount of plays of 20+ yards. If the Steelers can continue that kind of consistent coverage around Polamalu, teams will be forced to either throw the ball his way or throw into tight coverage elsewhere.
No quarterback in the league wants to throw into tight coverage, while most quarterbacks fear the very prospect of throwing to an area of the field with Polamalu in it. With more opportunities in less space, Polamalu can make the type of plays he has based his career on. With the Steelers’ playoff hopes hanging in the balance, Polamalu’s potentially impactful return could be the difference.