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Starkey: Polamalu master of his craft

| Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, 9:48 p.m.

Troy Polamalu has played in 135 of a possible 165 NFL games.

That is not an indictment. It's a miracle.

Polamalu lugged a significant concussion history into the league. He also arrived with an undersized frame, a habit of taking on 300-pound linemen and a penchant for playing every snap at 200 mph.

Not exactly a recipe for longevity.

Yet, here he is, in year No. 11, performing at a Pro Bowl level. The man has lapped the average NFL career despite injuries derailing two of his past four seasons.

Will it last?

Why fret?

Stay in the moment. Polamalu does. Enjoy the show. You're looking at one of the unique athletes in Pittsburgh sports history.

“Definitely a Hall-of-Fame safety,” says teammate Lawrence Timmons.

You're also looking at a rare combination: an athlete who has retained his immense physical skills while meshing them with an advanced understanding of the game.

The understanding often arrives just before the final curtain. Polamalu, 32, isn't there yet. Did you watch him last week against the Jets? Will Allen sure did. The newly re-signed veteran safety marveled at Polamalu's ridiculous performance.

Polamalu lined up at middle linebacker. He lined up at nose guard (and dropped into coverage to break up a pass 20 yards downfield). He made a vicious goal-line tackle on Bilal Powell and nearly broke wide receiver Stephen Hill in-half along the sidelines. He blitzed off the edges, blew up running plays, manned up slot receivers and covered half the field deep (although not deep enough on a play that nearly beat him and Ike Taylor for a touchdown).

Which other strong safety does all that in one game?

“I haven't seen one yet,” Allen said. “He's just a different type of guy. Troy is Troy.”

The key to Polamalu's fast start was finishing last season fairly healthy and immediately addressing a nagging calf issue. The advice of former teammate Jerome Bettis came in handy.

“I just remember Jerome telling me ‘Whenever you end a season with an injury, make sure you attack it and heal it,' ” Polamalu said after practice Friday. “I've been playing through calf injuries the past three or four years. It finally got to a point where it was hard to even walk on it. So I attacked my calf problems in the offseason (hiring a new physical therapist was part of the plan) and haven't had any problems thus far, thank God.”

Polamalu's legendary closing speed showed on the hit on Hill, who somehow held the ball.

“Some (big hits) feel good, some don't,” Polamalu said. “That was a pretty tough one. I felt it all the way to the bottom of my foot.”

At this point in his career, Polamalu often appears to be playing against the game itself. That is the ultimate challenge. He would never label himself a master of his craft, but as he analyzes other “artists,” the word easily could be ascribed to him.

Check out this answer, in response to whether Polamalu still thinks of football as a form of “ballet.”

“I like to see the rhythm of the game,” he said. “I like to understand the chess match in the game. To me, it's very artful. For example, watching a great quarterback is very artful in how they dissect a defense and how they dink-dunk, dink-dunk then take a shot at the correct time, in the same way that Coach (Dick) LeBeau calls a game.

“They've mastered the craft. And for the most part, any time someone masters a certain craft, it's really impressive to me.”

LeBeau, by the way, has Polamalu moving around like a queen on a chess board (the difference being that Polamalu is permitted to jump other pieces and often does). As Polamalu puts it, he is free to go “wherever the action is.” That could be anywhere against the Baltimore Ravens, a team that has provided the canvas for more than one Polamalu masterpiece.

“He could have a deep half in coverage, or he could be at the line making plays,” Timmons said. “He could be anywhere. Troy is Troy.”

Yes. So enjoy.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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