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Steelers safety Polamalu finds himself in tough position

| Thursday, Dec. 12, 2013, 10:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Troy Polamalu played 30 snaps at linebacker against the Dolphins on Sunday.

Can you imagine Terrell Suggs playing strong safety not long after being named Defensive Player of the Year?

Or even J.J. Watt lining up at cornerback?

What about Charles Woodson at nose tackle?

Seems about as silly as having a finally healthy, barely-over-200-pound, 32-year-old Troy Polamalu play inside linebacker three years after being named the best defensive player in the league at a strong safety position that he revolutionized.

Now, what very well could be the last go-around for Polamalu with the Steelers as he could be a salary cap casualty in March, it's coming at a position that he has rarely played before and is grossly undersized to be truly effective.

As a strong safety, Polamalu is an All-Pro.

As an inside linebacker, he's not.

Playing both is taxing.

“Especially how much we've been using it,” defensive backs coach Carnell Lake said. “It requires you to be mentally tough because you are preparing for two different spots which require two different skill sets. On top of that, the physical stress on your body in playing that close to the line all of the time really takes a lot out of you.”

Polamalu played 30 snaps at inside linebacker in the nickel package last week. It has been more some weeks and less others, but ever since the bye, Polamalu has played linebacker every game.

“Honestly, I like where the action is,” Polamalu said. “I will do whatever the team needs me to do.”

Decimated by Larry Foote's season-ending Week 1 arm injury, the Steelers tried other alternatives before turning to Polamalu. They tried journeyman Kion Wilson and then rookie Vince Williams before considering the final alternative — Polamalu.

“It has evolved that way,” Lake said. “With Troy's ability to grasp concepts quickly and his experience is the reason why he is there. There aren't many safeties like Troy, period. He's special.”

Lake can relate to such a move.

Lake moved from linebacker in college to safety with the Steelers before switching to cornerback out of necessity when Rod Woodson was lost early in the 1995 season. However, Lake moved from one defensive back position to another, not from the back half of the defense to the front seven.

“Playing linebacker is difficult, playing safety is difficult,” Polamalu said. “They both have their idiosyncrasies of making one job tougher than the other.”

For Polamalu, being cemented in one spot is something unusual.

When he's been at his best, Polamalu was afforded to freelance and confuse offenses. When he's at linebacker, that is traded in for being in the right gap, fitting the defense and having proper leverage on 300-plus pound offensive linemen.

“Playing linebacker, you have rules to adhere to,” safety Ryan Clark said. “At safety, he can make plays that weren't necessarily in the book.”

That's likely the reason why Polamalu looks like an All-Pro at times and lost at others.

Consider this: Polamalu's is third on the team with 72 tackles, but has missed 10 tackles including one that led to Miami's game-winning touchdown last week.

“He's going so hard and fast and wanting to do so much that sometimes he ends up in the wrong place,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said.

Polamalu has nine pass defenses, three forced fumbles, two interceptions, a defensive touchdown and a blocked extra point, but then there are the blown coverages against New England and Baltimore that resulted in touchdowns.

“For mortals, like myself, human beings, it's an impossible transition,” Clark said. “For Troy, it's easy.”

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