Even Polamalu worries he'll be injured

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Can we agree on a few things this morning? Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is more athletic than you. He makes more money than you. He has more fame than you. He has better hair than you.

I know, the truth hurts.


But there is one thing you and Polamalu have in common.

"Of course, I worry about getting hurt -- every day and every game," he said.

You worry about him getting hurt, too.

That fear seems especially palpable as the 5-1 Steelers get ready to take on the New Orleans Saints tonight in what should be a throbbing Louisiana Superdome. That's because star defensive end Aaron Smith went down and out with a torn left triceps muscle in the win against the Miami Dolphins last Sunday and could be lost for the season. Injuries to Smith and Polamalu last season sabotaged the team's defense, its 6-2 start and its Super Bowl plans. The same thing can't happen again, right?

I mean, really?

Steelers safety Ryan Clark was the wrong guy to ask about that. He didn't even want to entertain that horrible thought. He was a free agent after last season and almost signed with the Dolphins. The biggest reason he came back to the Steelers was to do his part to make things right with a defense that blew five fourth-quarter leads last season. His No. 2 reason was to play again with Polamalu, his best friend on the team.

Clark hasn't been disappointed in any way. The Steelers' defense has allowed the fewest points in the NFL and is best against the run. As for Polamalu, who has 41 tackles and two interceptions ...

"I told him after the game last week that I couldn't imagine sitting on the Miami sideline, watching him play. That would have really stunk," Clark said.

"He's been playing great. Awesome. He's doing what he always does on the field. He's playing like Troy. But he's become much more of a leader. He's become more vocal. It's good for him and good for us."

The always humble Polamalu didn't use the words "great" and "awesome" to describe his play, saying only, "I'm playing 5-1 football." But he readily agreed about the best part of his season: He has stayed healthy, other than taking a nasty hit late in the Cleveland game Oct. 17 from Browns running back Peyton Hillis. His left knee -- everybody knock on wood -- is fine. "I don't think he's even missed a practice," Clark said.

It wasn't like that last season. Polamalu's knee was injured in the opening game against the Tennessee Titans, then re-injured against the Cincinnati Bengals Nov.15, forcing him to sit out the final seven games. It's hard to say whom the defense missed more -- Polamalu or Smith, who was lost for the season in the fifth game against the Detroit Lions because of a torn right rotator cuff. Without both, the defense was mediocre and the team missed the playoffs.

It's no surprise the Steelers' run defense this season was better with Smith, who's been described as "unblockable" by teammate Brett Keisel. It's realistic to expect a drop-off without him despite coach Mike Tomlin's "The standard is the standard" preaching.

The pass defense also has been better with Polamalu even if it doesn't show in the NFL statistics. The Steelers rank 24th in the league, an unflattering position that's a bit deceiving. For one thing, teams had to throw against them in the first six games because they couldn't run. For another, as Polamalu noted, "We've given up some pass plays late in games when we've been ahead." The defense blew a late 14-10 lead in the loss to Baltimore Oct. 3 when the Ravens scored the winning touchdown on a short field, but was stout in overtime in the win against the Atlanta Falcons and on the final drives of close wins against the Titans and Dolphins.

"We just can't give up big plays," Polamalu said. "And we have to play great red-zone defense. Every team is going to drive the ball on you. Every team has so much talent."

The Saints certainly have their share. You might have heard they won the Super Bowl last season, a championship that was supposed to be the Steelers' before Smith and Polamalu were hurt. Polamalu expects the Saints' best shot tonight after they were beaten at home by the Browns, 30-17, last Sunday. Quarterback Drew Brees threw four interceptions in the loss and has thrown eight in the past three games.

"You just can't wait to get back on the field," Brees said.

Polamalu will be there waiting, apprehensions and all.

"It's such a tough game on your body," he said. "But you can't really think about that. I just keep going out there because my passion to play for my teammates and sacrifice for them outweighs my fear of getting injured."

It's nice to know Polamalu has found something that works for him. But you? You're still going to have to watch him play and hold your breath.

Good luck with that.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com . Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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