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Steelers' Harrison, Polamalu healthier, set for productive offseason

| Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2013, 10:28 p.m.
The Steelers' Troy Polamalu defends on the Cowboys' Dez Bryant at Cowboys Stadium Dec. 2012. Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review

For the first time in their nine seasons together in Pittsburgh, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu are close to being 100 percent healthy as the NFL playoffs begin.

That partly explains why the Steelers (8-8) will be only watching when the postseason starts this weekend.

The Steelers defense was No. 1 statistically for the fourth time in six seasons but, performance-wise, didn't play at the level coach Mike Tomlin and defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau envisioned during training camp. Not coincidentally, Harrison and Polamalu, two former Defensive Players of the Year, weren't close to being at their physical peaks for a majority of the disappointing season.

Harrison, whose pressure off the edge creates much of the disruption the defense wants to cause, reported to camp with a long-lingering left knee injury and finally needed surgery in mid-August. He missed the first three games and wasn't close to being the player he normally is until mid-November.

“It took a little while to get my knee back to where it needed to be, and it's still not there,” Harrison said. “But now I'll have the time to rehab it properly and get it back to 100 percent and get back to training the way I'm used to training.”

Something that simply wasn't an option to the five-time Pro Bowl player during a disrupted season.

“I still feel like I'm cutting corners, and I know the reason why,” Harrison said. “There's part of the muscles not developing, and you don't have time to actually concentrate on that one area when you are trying to play ball. You're just trying to get good enough so that you can go out there and play the next week.”

Polamalu injured his right calf in practice leading up to the opener against the Broncos. He played that game, then made only one brief appearance — in the first quarter against the Eagles on Oct. 7 — over the next 10 games.

Attempting to rush back, Polamalu reinjured his torn calf and set himself back further.

“That's what was hard for me — I wasn't healthy all year,” said Polamalu, a seven-time Pro Bowl player. “Usually, you have (the season opener) going for you. Then, after that, it's forget about it, but I didn't.”

In their two relatively healthy games together — against the Bengals and Browns to end the season — Polamalu had 11 tackles, a sack and his first interception in nearly a year; Harrison had 13 tackles and two sacks. And the defense created seven of the 20 takeaways it had all season.

Harrison, who will be 35 next season, and Polamalu, who will be 32, plan significantly upgraded training regimens now that the offseason has arrived prematurely. This is the first time since 2003 that one or both won't be in the Pro Bowl.

“What's nice about it is I'll go into the offseason on the rise and continue to get better, get in better shape and be more prepared for next year,” Polamalu said.

Added Tomlin: “To go into the offseason with health is a positive thing in the National Football League. It's a good springboard to 2013 for those two.”

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

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