There has been a great deal of talk about turnover within the Pittsburgh Steelers organization, especially on the defensive side of the football. One of the players whose worth is being questioned is Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu.
Polamalu has been riddled with injuries in recent years, but was able to play the full slate of games this year injury-free; however, some fans still point to his lack of big plays as signs that his performance is declining. However, that couldn’t be more wrong.
The decline in Polamalu’s numbers is not due to lack of instinct or a lack of performance, but mainly because of Larry Foote. When Foote tore his biceps tendon and ended his season, the Steelers had only rookies to step in to play the inside linebacker position. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau made some changes immediately that put Polamalu in that inside linebacker positions in certain defensive sub packages.
With Polamalu playing the line of scrimmage more, it decreased his chances of making those incredible interceptions and plays in the secondary that Steelers fans have grown accustomed to seeing. Even in a new position, Polamalu still recorded the third-most tackles on the defense, two interceptions, two sacks and five forced fumbles.
So why is Polamalu so key for the Steelers’ success if his production has dipped? First is the fact that the Steelers don’t have anyone behind him on the depth chart to take his place if they were to release him. Last offseason, the Steelers drafted Ryan Clark‘s replacement in Shamarko Thomas, but Polamalu remains the only player who can truly play the strong safety in Lebeau’s complex system.
The fact that Polamalu got through this season without injury is another great sign. No longer should fans be worried about lingering and nagging injuries, but rather focus on seeing Troy annihilate ball carriers and making plays.
That’s not to say there isn’t hesitation for the safety returning without a safety net. Polamalu was victimized several times this season where he simply looked like he was guessing rather than reading the play, and who could forget the missed tackles in the crucial loss to the Miami Dolphins at Heinz Field? On top of all that, there is still a chance that the safety decides to hang up the cleats and not play out the remainder of his contract.
I disagree with those clamoring for his departure. Polamalu is due $8.25 million next season in the final year of his contract, and the Steelers will have to work some magic here. I expect the Steelers to try and restructure Polamalu’s contract and keep the aging safety around for at least one more season as they identify the safety position in the upcoming draft. Polamalu might not be a spry as he once was, but can still make plays that can help a team win.