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Polamalu enters season 'safety centered'

| Sunday, Sept. 2, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
Steelers strong saftey Troy Polamalu during practice at St. Vincent College July 31, 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune Review

Troy Polamalu remembers when he could rely upon his exquisite timing to vault the offensive line and propel himself into the backfield, disrupting a play even before it started. Nobody else in the NFL could do it.

Or when he made plays so instinctively and athletic — such as his improbable, one-handed interception on a snowy field against Philip Rivers of the Chargers — that it required multiple replay reviews to determine how he possibly made them.

Those were the days for the player of a generation. These days, Polamalu is out to prove it's not a generation that's passed.

“I've been hiding a lot of my faults,” he says, laughing.

Once a super athlete whose ability to play half the positions on defense made him a game plan nightmare for offensive coordinators, Polamalu — at age 31 — is as apt to rely on his nine-plus seasons of experience as he is his unnatural instincts. He's also become more of a true safety than a defender who regularly makes can-you-believe-it's-true plays.

And when he films those Head & Shoulders ads that, according to Procter & Gamble, boosted sales 10 percent among the young adult target group, he must tint some of his gray hair. He's also more fastidious about his offseason eating, dieting earlier in advance of training camp this year than before.

It's not as if Polamalu is being ravaged by time; it's just that a player for the ages has to be conscious of his age. He also appears intent on improving upon a 2011 season in which the Steelers were No. 1 defensively and he made the All-Pro team, but his interceptions dropped to two from seven the season before.

“I think he likes people saying he's lost a step or that he's injured too much,” fellow safety Ryan Clark said. “Troy isn't Troy until the lights go on.”

A Fox Sports analysis recently referred to Polamalu's 2011 season as being “average” and called him one of the NFL's top 10 overrated players, but NFL Network analyst Jamie Dukes disagrees. He ranks Polamalu as the second-best safety behind Eric Berry of Kansas City.

However, Dukes said, “More teams are finding a way to put him in space, and that's the only real chink in his armor ... you can negate him.”

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau appears to be taking a less-is-more approach with Polamalu to utilize his strengths and prevent him from getting too overloaded with responsibilities, thus avoiding that negation factor.

“My role in the defense has changed quite a bit,” Polamalu said. “I was playing five different positions. Am I playing nickel? Am I playing dime? Am I playing safety? It was like, ‘We want to attack Troy when he's in that position, but he might not be in that position.' ”

Polamalu is becoming, in his words, more “safety-centered” and less likely to be an inside linebacker on one play, a nickel back the next and a blitzing cornerback the play after that.

“It's changed quite a bit in that way, and with time it's changed even more,” Polamalu said. “There's always a possibility of playing dime, nickel, and I played quite a bit of it last year. But it was more like, ‘All right, guys, we've got to put this in in the middle of the game.' Which is nice for coach LeBeau to be able to go there because I have that experience. It's lessened my role in the whole scheme of things.”

When he shifts positions, Polamalu said, it's not just to give the offense a different look but to — in his words — “calibrate our eyes” so everyone on the defense understands what is going on at every level.

“Sometimes when you're just down, down, down in the box and reading tight ends and in the slot playing man-to-man the entire game, you get into deep pass ... and you see the game differently,” he said. “What's tough about the position is over half the game I'm playing man-to-man on a receiver, and the other third or quarter I'm playing in the box, and the other one I'm playing deep pass.”

So it's not as if Polamalu has gone from being an every-day position player to the football equivalent of a designated hitter.

“I think Troy's back to being Troy,” Clark said.

Just an older, wiser Troy.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at arobinson@tribweb.com.

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