Well-conditioned Polamalu hopes for injury-free season with Steelers
Troy Polamalu, visibly trimmer and more fit than a year ago, is pacing himself like a savvy distance runner during preseason practices at St. Vincent.
At 32, one of the most-feared strong safeties in the NFL enters his 11th season physically and mentally refreshed. He isn't half-stepping around the Steelers' training facility to guard against the pulls and tears that ravaged his body the past several seasons.
Polamalu, often victimized by his sometimes-reckless style, has missed 22 games over the previous four seasons because of injuries — including a bruised calf, torn Achilles and damaged knees.
“I absolutely have to pace myself in camp,” Polamalu said. “You've got to see what you need to see. Whether or not you're practicing every day in camp or whether you miss the entire camp, no one remembers as long as you play 16 games.
“It's been going well in camp. I see where I'm weak and where I need to get better. It's benefited me as much as anyone else being here.”
The four-time All Pro insists he's fully recovered from a calf injury that plagued him much of last season. Though Polamalu started the final five games after sitting out nine, his aggressiveness was tempered as he delivered more measured blows.
“It's a blessing for Troy to keep playing at such an incredible level, considering how aggressive he plays,” cornerback William Gay said. “Hats off to the way he treats his body and the way he prepares for the season.”
At season's end, Polamalu wondered if he could go another round.
However, the long, grueling offseason workouts with trainer Marv Marinovich left him feeling rejuvenated and confident. He is genuinely convinced that he can stretch his career beyond the final year of his contract extension, which ends in 2014.
“I feel great standing here right now,” he said while hundreds of fans screamed for his attention following Monday afternoon's practice. “How I felt in the past, I don't have too much memory of that.”
Polamalu's recent past has been a perplexing mixture of pains and gains. Only twice over the past seven seasons has he made it through the regular season unscathed, but he was named 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year even as he patrolled the middle of the field on a tender Achilles.
Polamalu again teams with 12-year veteran Ryan Clark to give the Steelers the oldest pair of safeties in the NFL — a badge of honor for both. And they'll be accompanied by left cornerback Ike Taylor, now is his 11th season.
“If we can stay healthy this year, we all three could play in this defense for the next five years,” Polamalu said unblinkingly. “We all feel like we're in great shape.”
The trio missed a combined 14 games in 2012. Taylor was sidelined the last four games with an injured ankle, and Clark skipped the season opener in Denver as the altitude adversely affects his spleen because of his sickle-cell trait.
“There are few guys who never lose a step,” Gay said. “Troy and Ike and Ryan — they can play as long as they want to. They are machines. Machines do break down but not the guys I play with.”
Despite his enthusiasm, Polamalu acknowledged the future is uncertain past this season. He conceded he could abruptly walk away from a game that he never considered playing this long.
“It's possible,” he said. “Who knows what the next moment could bring?
“If anyone wants to plan anything with me, I'm the wrong person. I live for the moment. I live day to day. So, when preparing for a season, I never thought I'll be playing the next season.”
Taylor, though, can't envision lining up without Polamalu and Clark. But he knows the reality of time has afforded rookie safety Shamarko Thomas the opportunity to position himself as Polamalu's heir apparent.
“It's kind of rare to have that kind of experience in this age of free agency,” Taylor said. “We know each other on and off the field. I know Troy the person as well as I know Troy the football player. Whenever the (Steelers) feel like our time is up or we can't do it anymore, I'm sure Troy and I would agree we've had a helluva ride.”
For Polamalu, it was a turbulent ride last season. And the Steelers' rollercoaster season that leveled out with a disappointing 8-8 record is something he put behind him almost immediately after a 24-10 win over Cleveland in the season finale.
“Last year is over with,” he said. “Whether we had won the Super Bowl or finished 0-16, I would say the same. It's all about preparing for the moment and trying to get better to make a playoff run this year.
“I'm not one to prognosticate anything because only time will tell if we'll work well together this season. We've had a lot of success around here, and I'm very thankful for that. I'm confident we've prepared ourselves to be successful again.”
Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.
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