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Polamalu inches toward return for Steelers

A forced bystander during the four-game losing streak that has imperiled the Steelers' playoff chances, strong safety Troy Polamalu said he probably could have returned by now from the knee injury that has sidelined him since the middle of November.

But, Polamalu added Tuesday, "I don't think I would be a help at all to our team with my current condition. I think if I really felt like I could help this team out, I would be out there playing."

Polamalu didn't practice yesterday because of the strained posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) in his left knee, and he is expected to miss his fourth consecutive game Thursday night when the Steelers visit the Browns.

With the extra rest the Steelers will get by playing on a weekday, Polamalu and the Steelers could target the Dec. 20 game against the Green Bay Packers as the return date for the five-time Pro Bowler.

And of the knee he reinjured in the Steelers' 18-12 loss to the Bengals last month, Polamalu said, "With time, it is getting better."

What hasn't gotten better as the season has progressed is the defense's play in the fourth quarter of games.

A simple connecting of the dots makes it easy to see why Polamalu's absence — the seventh-year veteran has played in just three full games because of two separate knee injuries — has been linked to the Steelers' inability to close out opposing teams.

Coach Mike Tomlin has said the Steelers have squandered fourth-quarter leads in five of their six losses because they are simply not making enough plays defensively. Polamalu, meanwhile, is one of the most dynamic playmakers in the NFL.

He leads the Steelers in interceptions (three) despite missing roughly two-thirds of the season.

"Obviously, not having Troy puts us at a disadvantage," free safety Ryan Clark said.

Polamalu offered some insight yesterday into how the Steelers' defense is different without him.

He also talked about how his unorthodox style of play makes it difficult for players such as Clark and Tyrone Carter when either is paired with a more conventional safety.

"I always have my own agenda, and they have to react to my agenda," said Polamalu, who is given the freedom by the Steelers to line up all over the field. "When I'm in there with T.C., he knows that I'm going to do whatever I have to do, and he's going to react as well as Ryan. When you have two guys out there playing with someone that doesn't have my mentality, that can shake things up a little bit."

Shake things up is an apt description of what Polamalu tries to do to opposing quarterbacks by moving around before the snap.

"I think the freedom I have to do that creates maybe a little bit of indecision," Polamalu said. "I think when another safety is put in as the strong safety, I think the fans may expect a certain level from them, but coaches kind of constrict them a little bit."

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