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Steelers play second half without Polamalu

Whether it was making flying tackles, picking off a pass one-handed or drawing three penalties, Troy Polamalu proved to be a dramatic difference maker in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans.

For better or worse.

The Steelers saw the dramatic difference in their defense when playing without their All-Pro safety, as Polamalu injured his left knee in the second quarter and did not return to the game or the sidelines at Heinz Field. Coach Mike Tomlin said Polamalu had an MCL sprain and expects his star safety to be sidelined for 3-6 weeks.

Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said he didn't know how serious the injury was immediately afterward.

"It is an MCL sprain," Tomlin said. "They are reading the scans and so forth. Those things have a range of three-to-six (weeks). It is speculation at this point."

Polamalu had a team-high six tackles (all solo) and an interception in the first half, as well as two personal-foul penalties -- even though he didn't play the final defensive series.

The Steelers can ill afford to lose Polamalu, a 5-foot-10, 207-pounder who has been voted to five consecutive Pro Bowls and was named All-Pro in the Super Bowl seasons of 2005 and 2008. He started all 16 regular-season games last year, the first time he was healthy in three seasons. Polamalu missed four games in 2007 with rib and knee injuries.

His absence was blatantly obvious.

"We definitely were aware of him not being in there," Titans quarterback Kerry Collins said.

After Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes for a 34-yard touchdown pass and 7-0 lead late in the first half, the Titans responded by taking advantage of Polamalu's replacement, second-year safety Ryan Mundy, on a 57-yard pass play from Kerry Collins to Kenny Britt that set up a 12-yard scoring pass to Justin Gage for a 7-7 tie with 48 seconds left.

Polamalu made his presence known quickly, cutting the legs out from under running back Chris Johnson on a third-and-6 run from the 6-yard line to force a punt on the Titans' first possession.

When Johnson broke free for a 32-yard gain on the next series, Polamalu chased him down and chopped his legs out again along the right sideline. That hit drew an unnecessary roughness penalty on Polamalu, giving the Titans a 47-yard total pick up on the play.

Polamalu, however, made up for the flag by stripping tight end Bo Scaife on a pass in the flat on third-and-7. It forced the Titans to attempt a 37-yard field goal, and Rob Bironas' kick sailed wide right.

A five-time Pro Bowl selection who led the Steelers with seven interceptions last season, Polamalu flashed his flair for the spectacular late in the first quarter with a left-handed pick of a Collins pass intended for Britt at the 5. Polamalu returned the interception 16 yards, but Roethlisberger was intercepted by free safety Vincent Fuller on third down.

The second penalty called on Polamalu was a head scratcher, and one the seventh-year safety disputed. He was covering Gage step for step on a deep route when Gage bumped into and knocked over Polamalu while adjusting to a pass thrown on the Titans' receiver inside shoulder. Polamalu was flagged for pass interference, but an illegal formation call against Tennessee made the penalties offsetting.

Collins, however, found Britt for a 15-yard gain on the next play. And, on third-and-7 at the Steelers' 40, Polamalu drew another 15-yard personal-foul penalty, this time for grabbing the facemask of Scaife in trying to make a tackle. Once again, the Titans missed a field goal when defensive end Aaron Smith blocked Bironas' 31-yard attempt with 2:14 left in the first half.

By then, Polamalu was gone.

The Steelers will wait to see if it's for good.

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