Should the Steelers play Troy Polamalu vs. the Ravens in the playoffs? It is the elephant in the room that few in Steelers Nation want to discuss. But it is a question the Steelers must answer and a decision Mike Tomlin must make.
- Playoffs are no time for experimenting in the NFL.
Yes, teams can and do unveil new wrinkles some times to great effect – Deshea Townsend’s 4th quarter game-sealing sack of Matt Hasselbeck in Super Bowl XL came on a play that Dick LeBeau installed the night before. Other times playoff innovations turn to disaster (see the Bills attempt to with shovel passes to Thurman Thomas in their second Super Bowl loss to the Cowboys.)
- During the playoffs teams are wisest to stick to what they do best.
And that brings up a difficult decision for the Steelers. All season long the Steelers secondary has struggled. Cortez Allen, he of the big off season contract, regressed so badly he not only lost his starting role, but got benched altogether. Michael Mitchell, the Steelers first “splash” free agent signing in years, hasn’t been a bust, but his “splash contract” hasn’t translated into splash plays on the field.
But the Steelers defense has improved during the regular season’s last four games and, as the Bengals win would indicate, so has the secondary.
- And that improvement has happened with the defense’s one, sure fire Hall of Famer, Troy Polamalu on the bench.
Pittsburgh Tribune Review columnist Rob Rossi observed, “Dick LeBeau’s looked smarter in December, huh?” and he goes on to observe that during the Pittsburgh’s final four games, the Steelers defense only allowed two passes of 30 plus yards. Completions of 30 yards – or more – were staples of the Steelers 2014 season’s first 12 weeks.
While Steel Curtain Rising has no wish to steal Rossi’s thunder, his argument is simple:
- Without Polamalu, the Steeler defense is more conservative, more cautious and ultimately more effective. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
Troy Polamalu at Similar Cross Roads Now as Levon Kirkland was in 2000
In an interesting way, the situation Polamalu finds himself in now is very similar, for different reasons, to the one Levon Kirkland found himself in 2000. Levon Kirkland was not the same caliber player as Polamalu. Troy Polamalu is, what in the words of Behind the Steel Curtain’s Ivan Cole, “a generational player,” one of those rare competitors who can single handedly alter the course of a game (see the 2008 AFC Championship).
- Kirkland never quite broached that level.
But he was a beast and a freak of nature in his own rite.
While Polamalu dazzled and devastated with is acrobatic dramatic playmaking, Kirkland treated Steelers nation to the spectacle of a 300 pound inside linebacker covering players down the field – and doing it extremely well. Kirkland nabbed 11 interceptions in 144 games with the Steelers. For comparison’s sake, Ike Taylor only has 14 in 174 games. But as Kirkland shift from his 20’s into his 30’s, the extra weigh slowed him just enough to rob him of his effectiveness.
- Troy Polamalu is almost certainly at a similar point in his career.
Polamalu’s free lancing gave opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators fits. He was one guy they had to account for on every play, and they could never be sure where he was. Doubtlessly, detailed film study from Steelers games from 2004 to 2010 would reveal countless times when Polamalu’s gambles left him in the wrong part of the field at the wrong time.
- But Polamalu had the athletic ability to compensate for those mistakes.
And if he didn’t, the likes of Ryan Clark and Ike Taylor were skilled enough and athletic enough to pick up the slack. Clark is gone. Mitchell hasn’t played with Polamalu long enough to intutitively make course corrections when Polamalu free lances. Ditto Brice McCain and Antwon Blake.
- Still, that doesn’t mean that Polamalu can no longer add value to this defense.
As Dale Lolley points out, Polamalu is still very effective up in the box, playing against the run. And for however much his athletic abilities have atrophied, part of Polamlau’s punch came from his innate playmaking ability which is something players rarely “lose.” And Polamalu has shown that he steps up his level of play in big games.
- Should the Steelers play Troy Polamalu vs. the Ravens?
Mike Tomlin must make that decision. No one in Steelers Nation should envy his choice.