Kovacevic: What if Steelers added Superman?
It's entirely possible, I suppose, that even Troy Polamalu didn't know what he'd do until the Kansas City snap.
He'd sprinted right up behind the Steelers' defensive line, mane bouncing, helmet swiveling, eyes sizing up not only quarterback Alex Smith but also those around him.
Would he blitz?
Once receiver Dwayne Bowe lined up in the slot and looked toward Smith, Polamalu looked over at Bowe. This would be it.
Polamalu's feet shifted along with his attention and, once the play began, he didn't just follow Bowe across the middle but fairly strangled him. Smith looked longingly at Bowe, cocked once, but couldn't throw. This was it.
Never known for his imagination or improvisation, Smith essentially froze long enough for Ziggy Hood to sack him. And that was that.
The official scoresheet from the Steelers' 26-20 overtime loss Saturday night at Heinz Field will credit Polamalu on this play with … well, nothing.
His teammates know better.
“I'm telling you,” Ryan Clark would say later, “Troy is playing great, man.”
Let's hold off on that for a moment, if only because there's nothing inherently great about the play just described. Quality read, simple follow-up.
When linking greatness and Polamalu, there's got to be a cape, right?
Fast forward a bit.
On the Chiefs' second series, it was fourth-and-1 at their 21, and Andy Reid commendably threw preseason results to the wind and decided to go for it. Alas, so did Polamalu, back at the line and hovering like a hawk, but this time pouncing. He knifed through almost as quickly as the handoff to Jamaal Charles and sent Charles to the left, where he'd be stuffed by Hood and Jarvis Jones. Turnover on downs.
The official scoresheet again doesn't cite Polamalu.
Oh, you know it.
This isn't the savvy, stay-in-control Polamalu we've witnessed the past couple of years, hoping to merely limit the other team's damage, hopping to the sideline play after play, a fraction of his former superlative self.
No, this is Polamalu circa … when?
“Hmm, I don't know,” he tried answering me after the game. “But I do know that it's definitely the best I've felt in a long time.”
Don't doubt him.
Sure, he's 32 and he's missed 22 games the past four seasons. But these plays have been happening at St. Vincent and the South Side, too, and they haven't been seen by veteran observers since 2010, maybe back to 2008, when he had seven interceptions on the way to the Super Bowl.
No need to overthink the how: He isn't hurting.
With longtime personal trainer Marv Marinovich, Polamalu adapted from his holistic approach to conditioning to a more conventional one and looks positively ripped compared to last year. Separately, under the guidance of physical therapists, he's attacked scar tissue to address long-nagging calf and knee trouble.
Another solution was far simpler: Preserve his hardest football activity — for example, that ferocious 25-yard sprint at Smith that drew a roughing-the-passer flag — for actual games. Mike Tomlin has spelled him through drills, even given him two full days off.
“I've treated it like putting on armor in the offseason, cutting down on the wear and tear but still doing what I need to do to get strong and heal,” Polamalu said. “Being healthy at the end of last season, feeling like I had my legs under me, that allowed me to start training immediately. That helped, too.”
Clark, ever the blunt one, put it this way: “He's healthy, and that's it. He's able to practice every day, but he still took a couple days off in camp for soreness, which is smart. But he's running well, his weight's down, and I think that's been the main thing: He's in position to stay healthy. The freak accidents? You can't control that. But the muscle issues, pulls and things like that, this is the most he's been on top of that in three or four years.”
Clark shook his head.
“I'm excited just to have him out there. But to have him out there like this …”
Can't be overstated, huh?
There might be more wildly swinging variables to these Steelers than in a decade, and none take precedence over Ben Roethlisberger staying on the field. But for all the fuss over the rookies and other positional battles, it seems silly to me to think anything could make a bigger difference for this team than to have an all-time legend playing like, you know, an all-time legend.
No one will see it coming.