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Rossi: Polamalu shouldn't play vs. Ravens

| Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2014, 6:24 p.m.
Troy Polamalu, who turns 34 later this month, spent 12 years with the Steelers, making eight Pro Bowls and winning two Super Bowls.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Troy Polamalu, who turns 34 later this month, spent 12 years with the Steelers, making eight Pro Bowls and winning two Super Bowls.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is weighing retirement versus returning in 2015.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is weighing retirement versus returning in 2015.

Of the Steelers from the franchise's second Super Bowl era, which has provided some of the more popular players in Pittsburgh's rich football history, only two are locks for the Hall of Fame.

So if not fitting, it's at least nice to know Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu still are around for the main event of the opening round to the NFL playoffs. No two current Steelers have contributed more to a narrative that is obvious and at the root of the league's greatest rivalry.

Since their distasteful birth, the Baltimore Ravens have wanted to be the Pittsburgh Steelers. They've wanted to be the hardest, meanest bad boys on the block. They've wanted to intimidate by imposing their will, to devastate with their defense, to leave opponents beaten and battered along a championship road.

The Ravens have done all that, too.

But they've never knocked the Steelers out of the playoffs, and Ravens coach John Harbaugh is 0-2 when it counts against Roethlisberger and Polamalu.

Vulnerable as the Steelers might seem because of the hyperextended knee of running back Le'Veon Bell, the catalyst of an offense tasked with carrying any playoff hopes, at least they are not the team trying to exorcise demons at Heinz Field.

Yet, the Steelers are the team that might be done in by a ghost — the Ghost of Polamalu Past.

Coach Mike Tomlin cannot live in the past, must forget all the decisive plays Polamalu has made against the Ravens, and should deactivate his most iconic player Saturday night.

It's not that Will Allen is a better strong safety than Polamalu. He's not, even with Polamlau slowed by wear, tear and injury.

However, the Steelers are better prepared to continue their postseason mastery of the Ravens with Allen as their starter. Even if Polamalu is healthy. Even against the Ravens.

Polamalu is not the line-leaping, football-seeking, splash-play sensation he was during the glory run of a Steelers' defense for which he was the undeniable star of stars. His long hair has grayed. His steps have slowed. His star has dimmed.

Polamalu's pick-and-run that launched the Steelers past the Ravens and into the Super Bowl in 2009 was the greatest play in Heinz Field history. It also happened almost six full years ago, when Joe Flacco was a wide-eyed rookie.

Granted, Flacco still can look like a wide-eyed rookie as the Ravens quarterback. He spent three quarters looking like one against Cleveland last week.

Flacco also has an amazing ability to go from woeful to white hot in a snap, and the latter looks a lot like this: beautiful bombs to streaking Ravens' receivers.

Roethlisberger will be the better quarterback on the field Saturday night. Flacco will be the more dangerous because he throws pro football's best deep ball.

And what is the most obvious weakness of this particular Steelers defense?

You're probably not the only one gulping when thinking of what Flacco could do against a defense that surrendered 30 passing touchdowns, allowed an average of 253 passing yards and gave up enough big plays to have reasonable people questioning one of the most respected and accomplished defensive coordinators in NFL history.

Dick LeBeau's looked smarter in December, huh?

His defense turned opposing offenses one-dimensional, mostly by shutting down rushing attacks, creating occasional pressure, snagging some turnovers and, most critically, reducing the number of times the secondary got its top blown off.

The Steelers allowed only two completions of at least 30 yards in their four-game winning streak to close the regular season, and none over the final three games — games that Polamalu mostly missed.

The defense has improved, not dominated, and it probably is unfair to place the blame for previous struggles on Polamalu. He has had some nice moments this season. There was a sequence (Games 1-10) when he was the only defensive back who seemed to understand the scheme, or the basic concept of tackling.

Still, it's hard to hear defensive backs talk about improved communication in the secondary, as they have the past three weeks, and not start thinking something is different — and better — when Polamalu isn't playing.

Despite what Tomlin said Tuesday, it does appear the secondary takes a safer, less aggressive approach when Polamalu isn't on the field. It also looks like Allen is used more in coverage, whereas Polamalu often becomes a fifth linebacker.

It certainly sounds like Allen and free safety Mike Mitchell are on the same page, a vibe nobody has picked up from the Polamalu-Mitchell pairing.

Safe, less aggressive play, continued chemistry and improved coverage from the safeties will do the Steelers well on Saturday night. It is an elimination game, one that features two of the top-six run defenses. Neither the Steelers nor Ravens are going to get into Round 2 by way of the ground game.

The Ravens won't get there unless Flacco outplays Roethlisberger. That happens only if Flacco connects on some deep throws.

The argument for playing Polamalu is that he has been there, done that — especially against the Ravens — and that he might recapture some of the magic that has made his legend.

Magic is an illusion. Ghosts aren't real.

Polamalu shouldn't play.

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rrossi@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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