In Polamalu, an All-Pro mentor
Troy Polamalu, nursing a tender calf since the season opener, has spent the past two weeks auditioning as a coach. He's remained engaged, schooling backups Ryan Mundy and Will Allen.
The veteran All-Pro safety would rather strap on his helmet and make the momentum-shifting blows that seemingly always energize the Steelers' defense. Instead, he's been helping direct a secondary that sometimes has been up and down.
“If I'm not playing, I'll convey to the guys what I see and how we're being attacked,” Polamalu said. “I think it's different when you hear it from coaches than when you hear it from players.
“I feel like a coach sometimes. I'm talking to the guys every play and talking to the defense and hopefully (preparing) them for situations they can expect in the red zone, on third down or during two-minute drills.”
Yet Polamalu's biggest challenge against the Oakland Raiders last weekend wasn't trying to figure out a way to stop quarterback Carson Palmer on the game-winning drive. It was helping Mundy piece together his emotions after he delivered a hit that left receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey stretched out in the end zone with a strain neck and concussion.
“It was a tough play any time you see a guy seriously injured on the field, whether it's a teammate or an opponent,” said Mundy, who exchanged text messages with Heyward-Bey earlier this week. “This is our livelihood — our lifelong dream — so it was tough for me mentally and emotionally.”
For years, Polamalu has been the spark that ignites the Steelers. Now he's the calm, sage veteran tasked with boosting the confidence of a secondary that has had its weaknesses exposed by Palmer and Denver's Peyton Manning during the Steelers' disappointing 1-2 start.
So far, Mundy and Allen have been inconsistent with Polamalu and Ryan Clark out of the lineup. They have struggled to make plays in pass coverage and against the run, especially as Denver and Oakland switched to the no-huddle.
Polamalu, though, figures the secondary will pull it together before the Steelers host the Philadelphia Eagles on Oct. 6 at Heinz Field.
“It's hard to be a backup to such great players,” Mundy said. “When they go out of the game, the standards have been set high. Will and I have the ability to come in and play well, and we've done it.
“But it's not for us to go into the game and be Ryan Clark and Troy Polamalu. We just have to be ourselves, and the coaches will have confidence in us. A lot of people expect us to play at that level.”
Mundy and Allen may have had their problems, but Oakland's receivers insisted the Steelers safeties were victims of an increasingly predictable defense.
Polamalu's presence, however, usually keeps opposing quarterbacks guessing.
“Troy is like a coach. Even when he's playing he's like a coach,” Mundy said. “He has the ability to see things that most guys are unable to see, then diagnose plays and situations. Ryan and I look to him to ask what he sees and what he might anticipate.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7923.