Polamalu struggling with no Hope

| Monday, May 15, 2006

Troy Polamalu had Bill Cowher and defensive backs coach Darren Perry on speed dial this offseason. His intent was to do anything in his power to convince them to keep his close friend and secondary mate, Chris Hope, with the Steelers.

"I wanted to see how the process was going -- and to do some lobbying," said Polamalu, a Pro Bowl strong safety. "I don't think my clout was very strong. I tried to help keep him here, but when you're getting offered triple somewhere else, it's a no-brainer."

On March 23, the bad news hit Polamalu like a powerful left hook. Hope had signed a six-year, $32 million contract, including $10 million in guaranteed money, with the Tennessee Titans.

Polamalu still feels the sting of saying farewell to the veteran free safety.

"It's tough to deal with because he sat next to me in meetings; we talked all the time," Polamalu said, as the Steelers completed the second day of their three-day minicamp Sunday on the South Side. "The mesh we had together cannot be matched by any other safety group in the NFL. That's been the key to our success as a defense. It's going to be really tough find the relationship we had."

Prior to each game over the past two seasons -- during which Hope and Polamalu were starters -- they shared a saying: One more of many more. Their goal was to play their entire careers together, to set a standard that all other safety tandems would envy.

But their best-laid plans were quashed by the business side of the NFL.

"One of the keys to our defense has been our ability to hold it up on the back end, which also had been the Achilles' heel in previous years before we got here," Polamalu said.

Polamalu, who will be entering his fourth NFL season, and Hope, who enters his fifth, combined for 197 tackles and five interceptions during the Steelers' Super Bowl season in 2005. Polamalu made the Pro Bowl for the second consecutive year, while Hope led a defense that finished in the top 10 for the second year in a row.

"There are a lot of mistakes I make that (Hope) makes up for," Polamalu said late last season. "That's why it's great to have him. I think it'd be hard for me to find a really cohesive bond with some other safety."

But that's exactly what Polamalu is trying to do at minicamp. The Steelers signed former Washington Redskins safety Ryan Clark to take over for Hope, though veteran Tyrone Carter is working with the first team at minicamp and rookie third-round pick Anthony Smith is adjusting to the pro game.

Clark is the only one of the three with extensive starting experience. He started at strong safety the past two seasons, playing alongside Redskins free safety Sean Taylor, who, like Polamalu, lined up in a number of positions while Clark, like Hope, was responsible for keeping order in the secondary.

Fact is, no matter who ends up taking over for Hope, Perry said Polamalu will learn to adjust.

"I tried to tell him that change sometimes can be a good thing, and we've deal with it just in the short amount of time I've been here and the short amount of time he's been here," said Perry, a former free safety for the Steelers. "You want things to stay as consistent as possible; that's what you strive for, but it's inevitable and change is going to happen."

As far as Clark is concerned, he believes it won't take long to develop a bond with Polamalu.

"When you have good guys and good players back there, things work out," said Clark, who had 57 tackles and three interceptions last season. "If you hang around somebody everyday, you're going to develop chemistry. I know a lot has been made because Chris and Troy played for a while together, and they did have chemistry, but I think the same thing can happen; guys are getting close. Tyrone Carter has already been playing back there, and there's some consistency to the position already."

Carter expects little drop-off once the free safeties get comfortable working with Polamalu on a consistent basis.

"You start to know each other's strengths and weaknesses the more you're out there," Carter said. "And once you find those things out, you build that bond and that chemistry, like we've always had in the secondary."

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