Steelers say calls to bench veteran defensive back Polamalu 'absurd'

| Thursday, Jan. 1, 2015, 10:18 p.m.

Are the Steelers a better defense without Troy Polamalu?

Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau only could muster a snicker. Cornerback William Gay blurted, “Ha!”

Free safety Mike Mitchell had more than one word, none of them flattering, for whoever is buying into the ever-growing narrative that the Steelers have to steer away from playing Polamalu in Saturday's AFC wild-card game against the Ravens.

“That's the dumbest thing I've ever heard,” Mitchell said. “That's absurd. It just shows the disrespect that some people have, and they have no clue about our game.”

Polamalu is expected to play Saturday in the Steelers' first playoff game in three years, but it's unsure what his role will be. He likely will regain his starting strong safety position, but it is unclear whether Will Allen will take away any of Polamalu's snaps.

A couple of years ago, that might have seemed absurd. It doesn't now.

Polamalu has missed the past two games and four of the last seven while dealing with multiple injuries, including a sore knee. He practiced last week before being a surprise inactive against the Bengals.

Polamalu hasn't shown up on the injury report this week, and he has been taking the majority of the first-ream reps, and according to Mitchell, has “looked fantastic.”

“I thought he was ready to go last week,” Mitchell said. “It totally shocked me that he didn't play.”

Coach Mike Tomlin fanned speculation earlier this week when he was noncommittal when asked if Polamalu would get his starting job back when healthy.

“There are complexities to these things, and we're going to deal with them on a case-by-case basis at the appropriate time,” Tomlin said.

It's hard to argue the Steelers defense has been better without Polamalu — at least over the past two games.

The defense kept the Chiefs out of the end zone in a 20-12 win, and it limited the Bengals offense during a 27-17 division-clinching win.

A lot of that had to do with Allen's play.

“Will Allen is a very good football player,” LeBeau said. “He had a great game last week. It was one of the best games he's had with us.”

Polamalu was not in the locker room Thursday during both interview sessions.

Polamalu, 33, isn't the same player he was when winning NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010, but he does bring a wealth of big-game experience. His 14 playoff games are tied for most on the team with Ben Roethlisberger and Ike Taylor. He has also had some of his most memorable games against the Ravens.

Polamalu intercepted Joe Flacco in the waning moments of the 2008 AFC championship game and returned it for a touchdown that sent the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII. His sack/forced fumble of Flacco late in a 10-6 game in 2010 led to the game-winning touchdown.

“I remember growing up watching Troy pick off Joe Flacco and returning them for touchdowns,” Mitchell said. “Those are the kind of plays Troy makes, and you lose that when he isn't on the field.”

Polamalu, like the rest of the secondary, has had problems defending the deep pass.

But, two of the four longest receptions it has allowed — 80 yards to Nate Washington and 67 yards to T.J. Graham — were with Polamalu sidelined. Polamalu is fourth on the team with 59 tackles.

“He has that uncanny ability, that God-sent gift to diagnose plays and make the plays that other guys are afraid to make,” Mitchell said.

“The only thing I can think of when he isn't on the field is that I know exactly where Will Allen is going to be at all times,” Mitchell said. “That doesn't mean it's a better defense. It just says Will does it more by the book.”

Mark Kaboly is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at mkaboly@tribweb.com or via Twitter @MarkKaboly_Trib.

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