On the Steelers: Polamalu lucky, blessed to just survive

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Troy Polamalu witnessed yet another young player writhing on a football field Thursday night at Heinz Field. He has seen too many in his 10 years playing for the Steelers, young and old alike.

Since January alone, he has seen teammates Casey Hampton, Rashard Mendenhall, Max Starks, David Johnson and now rookie linebacker Sean Spence lost in a rage of ACL tears unprecedented in a generation in such a short period. That doesn't even count rookie guard David DeCastro's torn MCL, among other damage fixed Wednesday in a surgery, that will shelve him for at least half the season.

Hall of Famer Jim Kelly, who grew up in East Brady, Pa., often joked that Western Pennsylvania produced so many great quarterbacks because of the Iron City beer brewed in the area. But what's in the water that might be causing so many knee ligament tears on the hometown team lately? There are no answers.

Polamalu has had his own share of injuries, including a torn MCL in 2009 that limited him to just five games that season. Seeing all that carnage through the years provokes all kinds of emotions in this five-time All-Pro safety.

He feels humbled, and lucky to have survived all these years.

"Humbling in a way, I guess, if I look at it, egotistically, that I've been in so many games, so many battles -- 16 games in the regular season, four preseason games, postseason games," Polamalu said after seeing Spence carted off Thursday night at Heinz Field. "To see an injury happen like that to a guy who has all the potential in the world in only his fourth preseason game, it's really humbling. I feel so blessed at every opportunity."

Polamalu enters his 10th season having acquired a new appreciation for his health and his sport.

"I think that's the beautiful thing about football, you take just one moment at a time. It taught me such a great life lesson to just appreciate those things. That's the first thing I think of when I get injured and the first thing I think of when I see other people get injured, just the brutality and physical nature of this game and the blessings that come with it."

Sometimes, there's nobody or anything specific to blame. Some knee injuries occur on grass, some on artificial grass, some the result of a brutal tackle, some when another player falls into you, and some when there is no contact, as happened to Spence and to Baron Batch early in his rookie training camp.

They aren't just knee injuries either. Willie Colon is back after missing virtually two seasons with, first a blown Achilles that tore while he worked out by himself in late June, then to a torn triceps in the first game of 2011. Young backup halfback John Clay's season ended with a torn quad in the first preseason game.

"It's just crazy it happens when nobody's touching you," Polamalu said. "That's how on edge -- like these racecars, you miss putting on a $5 bolt like Parnelli Jones did in the Indy 500. He's lapping everybody, breaking records and this $5 bolt ruins it for him, you know?"

Polamalu may be able to impressively reference a 45-year-old auto race, but don't ask him to predict the future, such as whether the Steelers defense is ready to open the season Sunday night in Denver.

"I don't know," said Polamalu to a question that 99 percent of his colleagues would answer in the affirmative. "I'm never, ever one to speculate or predict anything. Time will tell after 16 games.

"It's never safe to tell. That's why I'll probably never be a sportscaster. I have too much respect for ourselves, the unknowns that happen and the hard work that other people put in to predict anything."

He won't even pat his team on the back for its ability to cause eight turnovers in four preseason games after they managed just 15 all of last season.

"To me, it doesn't mean anything at all. We had a lot of turnovers last preseason. Who knows how this season will turn out for us? A lot of things can happen, injury situations across the league. Who knows?"

Polamalu knows just one thing as he enters his 10th season, that he is healthy. He also knows that can change in the blink of a ligament tearing.

"I feel very blessed," he said.

Butler Era

Many mark different eras in Steelers history by the coach or quarterback, such as the Bill Cowher Era or the Bubby Brister Era.

Not many do so with punters, so let's be the first to call it the beginning of the Drew Butler Era!

The son of former Bears kicker Kevin Butler, he punted his way onto the Steelers roster as an undrafted rookie with a 45.9-yard average, showing again that the team does not have to use high fourth-round draft picks to find a good punter. Like his father, Butler played at Georgia.

He received no promises when the Steelers signed him, although Jeremy Kapinos' back surgery early in August took him out of any competition that might have taken place in the preseason.

"They just said come in and compete," Butler said. "They said it's going to be a great opportunity to come in and compete and get on film. That's really all you're looking for, just that first step in the NFL. For me, it's worked out so far."

The Drew Butler era follows those of Daniel Sepulveda, Chris Gardocki and Josh Miller in this century.

Return to practice

The Steelers resume practice today after three days off while the coaches and personnel department were busy cutting the roster and signing eight to the practice squad.

They are not done. They likely will place injured rookie guard David DeCastro on injured reserve today and use the newly created special designation that would make him eligible to return to the 53-man roster after eight weeks.

That would leave them thin with only eight players on the offensive line. They can remedy that by re-signing veteran Trai Essex, who was released Friday.

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For more on the Steelers, read the blog, Ed Bouchette on the Steelers at www.post-gazette.com/plus. Ed Bouchette: ebouchette@post-gazette.com and Twitter @EdBouchette. First Published September 3, 2012 4:00 AM

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