Cook: Polamalu's days might be numbered

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All eyes turned toward the big scoreboard Sunday when it played "Renegade" at Heinz Field. It's always a highlight at Steelers home games -- the amazing collection of big plays by the defense, wonderfully choreographed to the pulsating beat of Styx. Was it just me or did it seem as if Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was the star of the show? There he was, stripping the ball from Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco, returning a fumble for a touchdown against the Indianapolis Colts, timing his leap perfectly over the offensive line to tackle Tennessee Titans quarterback Kerry Collins in the backfield on a sneak ...

The plays kept coming from Polamalu, who didn't appear to be watching from his spot on the bench. The Steelers had just scored against the Philadelphia Eagles to take a 7-0 lead on their way to a 16-14 win. But Polamalu was done for the day -- and maybe for a long, long time -- hopping off the field late in the first quarter because he couldn't put any weight on a right calf that just won't heal for him. I wonder if he was thinking what I was thinking as "Renegade" rocked the stadium. How many more big plays does he have left in him?

This injury looked bad. Polamalu missed the previous two games because of his calf and, with the Steelers' off week, had nearly a month to get it right. But he couldn't even make it through one quarter. Maybe that wouldn't seem so worrisome if this was the first time. But leg problems limited Polamalu last season and in 2010. He is 31. Is it so outrageous to think a calf injury could take him out of the game prematurely? A toe injury took down Hall of Famer Jack Lambert, didn't it? A hamstring injury finished Hall of Famer Dermontti Dawson, right?

Steelers safety Ryan Clark is Polamalu's best friend on the team. He wasn't ready to go there about Polamalu's injury but acknowledged it was significant.

"I almost had a mental collapse when I saw him get hurt," Clark said. "Sometimes, I think my love for him is a negative. I hurt selfishly when I see him hurting because I want him out there. He's part of the reason why I play here, why I come back every year.

"For something like that to happen to him, it's terrible. I know how hard he's worked to get back. I'm here at 6:30 in the morning. When I get here, he's already done with his workout. He wants to be out there with us. That's why he's hurting right now."

It's hard to imagine the Steelers winning the AFC North Division or even making the playoffs without Polamalu. He's their defensive playmaker, their difference-maker. You don't need to hear "Renegade" or see the scoreboard extravaganza to know that. His replacement, Ryan Mundy, isn't nearly the same player. Few, if any, defensive players in the NFL are Polamalu's equal.

Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley also left the game late in the first quarter with a right hamstring injury. He had similar issues last season when he missed six games. This injury isn't considered serious, although, with a short week, he probably won't be ready to play against the Titans Thursday night.

Polamalu's injury overshadowed a win the Steelers desperately needed. Even without him and Woodley, the defense was much better, although it did give up two second-half touchdown drives and nearly blew a 10-point second-half lead for the second consecutive game. The defense did a nice job containing Eagles quarterback Michael Vick and star running back LeSean McCoy, who managed just 53 yards on 16 carries.

Linebacker Lawrence Timmons was the star of the day, making one big play after another, including a forced Vick fumble on the play when Polamalu was injured. "I thought he played great," linebacker Larry Foote said. "If he didn't miss a sack or two, he could be defensive player of the week."

The other big defensive story was the return of linebacker James Harrison, who played for the first time this season. He was supposed to be spelled during the game because of concerns about his endurance, but he ended up playing all 56 of the Eagles' snaps.

"I don't think he had any sacks, but I saw him hit the quarterback a lot," Foote said. "It seemed like he was helping the quarterback up a whole bunch. That has to be good."

Very good, actually.

The defense just looked different with Harrison on the field.

"He's been a defensive player of the year for a reason," Clark said. "It's not just about talent with him. It's about effort and desire. Just his presence out there made us a better defense."

Harrison assessed his performance as a "C-" and said he has plenty on which to improve. He was credited with three quarterback hurries. Just think of the damage he will do when he gets in game shape. "I'm still looking for my legs," he said. "I still haven't found them. It's going to take awhile."

The best news? Harrison said of his knee, which had tortured him since the spring, "Right now, it's not feeling too bad." He should play Thursday night in Tennessee.

It's a crying shame the Steelers can't say that about Polamalu. Sadly, they might not be able to say he's going to play for a long time.

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First Published October 8, 2012 4:00 AM


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