Steelers' Polamalu ponders murky future after team's playoff loss

Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau and safety Troy Polamalu (43) leave the field after the Steelers lost to the Ravens, 30-17, in an AFC wild card game Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick Lebeau and safety Troy Polamalu (43) leave the field after the Steelers lost to the Ravens, 30-17, in an AFC wild card game Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015, at Heinz Field.
Photo by Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Ralph N. Paulk
| Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015, 10:03 p.m.

Troy Polamalu made a long, arduous walk toward his locker more than an hour after the Steelers were ousted from the postseason by Baltimore in Saturday night's wild-card game, which was decided, in part, by penalties and momentum-crushing turnovers.

The outcome, a 30-17 defeat at Heinz Field, hinged greatly on the absence of the team's young star, All-Pro running back Le'Veon Bell. The heavy lifting shifted to quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and a defense that relied on Polamalu's presence to generate a spark.

A distant look in Polamalu's eyes was reflective of a proud 12-year veteran disappointed in his effort. He, too, looked weary and tired as he punted on most questions about the possibility of retirement, saying repeatedly, “Time will tell.”

As time ran out on the Steelers' first playoff appearance in three seasons, it may no longer be an ally of the future Hall of Famer.

“Honestly, we just lost a game,” said Polamalu, who has two years remaining on his contract. “I don't think I'm prepared to even think about that or talk about that at this time.”

Polamalu, who turns 34 in April, led a sometimes-undisciplined defense with eight tackles. However, he hardly impacted the game as he did in the Steelers' playoff wins over Baltimore in 2008 and 2010.

He didn't deliver a familiar splash play. Or a thunderous hit to create a seismic shift in momentum.

“I didn't play good enough to win the game,” said Polamalu, who sat out four of the past seven regular-season games with injuries.

Instead, a restless crowd watched as Baltimore's defense played better than it had all season. The Ravens thwarted the Steelers' comeback effort as they twice intercepted Roethlisberger in the fourth quarter.

This time, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs made the plays that often defined Polamalu's career. He made a spectacular interception that led to a fourth-quarter touchdown, and he consistently collapsed the pocket to help generate five sacks.

The Ravens' first playoff victory in Pittsburgh left plenty of doubt about the future of several veteran players, including linebackers James Harrison and Jason Worilds and cornerback Ike Taylor, but mostly Polamalu.

“You'll never know how much these guys sacrificed,” defensive end Cam Heyward said. “You just don't know what's going to happen in the future.”

Polamalu appeared to tip his hand as he reminisced about the glory years, which included Super Bowl victories in the 2005 and 2008 seasons. He spoke passionately of former teammates Hines Ward, Joey Porter, Marvel Smith and Alan Faneca — players who define the organization.

“They laid it all on the line,” Polamalu said. “They played hard every snap.”

Polamalu said it's fair to suggest his future, with the Steelers is in doubt. Yet, he didn't rule out the possibility of returning in 2015 to play with an increasingly younger team.

“There is a lot of young talent all over the field,” said Polamalu, the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. “This team really grew throughout the season, not just in the secondary.

“Sometimes you have to pay your dues. The Super Bowl teams I was a part of, it wasn't the first time we made the playoffs we won the Super Bowl. We went to the (2004) AFC championship game and lost, and our team grew from that and the next year (2005), we won a Super Bowl.

“When you've been part of an organization as long as I've been, you learn it's not a one-year process,” he added. “There are growing pains, and seeing people develop was a great accomplishment. Of course, we wanted more out of (this season), but the team will learn from it, I'm sure.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com.

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