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Steelers strong safety Polamalu ponders next season, beyond

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Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Steelers' Troy Polamalu breaks up a fourth-quarter pass intended for the Bengals' A.J. Green on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, at Heinz Field.

By the numbers

Comparing Troy Polamalu's 2013 season to his Pro Bowl seasons:

Season Games Tackles Sacks INTs/Yds FF FR

2004 16 97 1 5/58 0 0

2005 16 100 3 2/42 1 2

2006 13 82 1 3/51 1 0

2007 11 74 0 0/0 3 1

2008 16 87 0 7/59 0 0

2010 14 82 1 7/101 1 1

2011 16 90 1 2/33 0 1

2013 14 81 2 2/36 5 1

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Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

By Alan Robinson
Thursday, Dec. 26, 2013, 10:30 p.m.
 

Troy Polamalu doesn't want to think about this possibly being his last game with the Steelers.

“I don't know,” the seven-time Pro Bowl safety said Thursday about his future in Pittsburgh. “My intention is to play on Sunday, and we'll see what happens from there on.”

Might he retire, if he doesn't like the direction the Steelers are headed following what, at best, will be a second successive 8-8 season?

“I don't know,” Polamalu said. “I really don't know. ... The chips will land wherever they may after this game, and we'll see.

“I want to play this game as long and as good as I can play it. Whenever that (retirement) time comes, it will come. I'm not sure when it will come, though.”

Polamalu understands that if the Steelers (7-8) miss the playoffs for the second year in a row following their Sunday game against the Browns (4-11), the organization could undergo a major makeover in 2014.

Tough decisions must be made about longtime defensive regulars such as Polamalu, Brett Keisel, Ryan Clark, Ike Taylor, Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley. The majority might not return, both for performance and monetary reasons. The defense is the NFL's oldest, with an average age of 29, and isn't playing at the level it did while leading the league in 2011 and 2012, ranking 14th this season.

Polamalu's salary cap hit of nearly $10.9 million for 2014, the final season of his contract, is substantial. And because he has no dead money resulting from prior restructurings, the Steelers could cut him and immediately free up $8.25 million — his scheduled 2014 salary — in cap space.

For a franchise that will go into the offseason more than $10 million over the projected cap, that is a significant amount.

“I have no idea what my cap situation is,” Polamalu said. “I have no idea about dead money, live money; to be honest I don't even know what I make.”

There is a chance the Steelers could ask Polamalu to restructure his contract, just as they did with linebacker James Harrison last season. But those talks didn't go well, and Harrison wound up playing in Cincinnati. Polamalu has no idea what would happen if he's asked to rework his contract.

“Unfortunately, this is a business,” Polamalu said. “The higher-ups make their decisions to take care of their families, and the players have to make their decisions to take care of their families. That's the unfortunate part of this business.”

No doubt there will be a demand for Polamalu's services somewhere next season. After missing nine games in 2012 with a torn calf, Polamalu is enjoying a comeback season at age 32, one comparable to many of his Pro Bowl seasons.

But he isn't satisfied, saying, “I know there are a lot of plays here that I've messed up that could have made a difference in games, a big difference in games. ... I've given a 7-8 effort like everybody else.”

It hasn't helped that Polamalu often plays out of position — as an undersized inside linebacker trying to stop the run — because linebacker Larry Foote was injured in the season-opening game and nose tackle Casey Hampton wasn't re-signed.

“I will say there are players that I can think of that we don't have this year that, I feel, could make us a better team,” Polamalu said.

But, despite being unsure of the Steelers' plans for him, Polamalu doesn't want to be a Franco Harris or a Mike Webster, who finished their careers outside of Pittsburgh.

“Could I, standing here right now (think about playing elsewhere)?” he said. “I couldn't see that happening but, whether it happens or not, it's God will.”

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