Troy Polamalu looked around the locker room Tuesday afternoon and had a flashback to 2005. Nine years ago, Polamalu was a young player trying to establish himself in his third season in the NFL. He can remember Jerome Bettis sitting in a locker to his right and thinking one day he might be one of the oldest guys in the locker room.
That came to fruition Tuesday when Polamalu showed up for the first time this offseason for the first day of a three-day mandatory minicamp.
Polamalu’s old pal, Ryan Clark, is gone. So is Brett Keisel, who had been the longest-tenured member of the defense last season.
Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons talks defense
Steelers linebacker Lawrence Timmons discusses the team's defense during mini-camp Tuesday. (Video by Matt Freed; 6/17/2014)
“It’s strange to me to be the oldest and most experienced guy,” Polamalu said, forgetting that Ike Taylor, a fellow member of the 2003 draft class, is a year older. “I never thought that would happen. Jerome was here it seems like yesterday. He was one of the greatest running backs ever to play the game. And he was old. I hope one day I can get old and here I am. I guess I’m old, too.”
Polamalu was the only player on the roster who did not participate in at least one portion of the voluntary spring practices that began a month ago. But skipping offseason training in Pittsburgh is nothing new for Polamalu.
Intermittently over the years, he has participated in alternative training with longtime trainer Marv Marinovich in California. He followed a similar routine this year and feels good about his health as training camp approaches next month.
Polamalu’s presence at a minicamp was not important in other years, but he will have a new starter at free safety this season for the first time in eight years. Mike Mitchell was signed in free agency to replace Clark, who was not re-signed.
Mitchell will be just the third safety Polamalu has started alongside in his 12 seasons with the team. For his first three seasons, Chris Hope was at free safety. After he left for a free-agent contract with Tennessee, the Steelers signed Clark in 2006 and he was a fixture there until last season.
For Polamalu, it’s not so much about the on-field communication with Mitchell as it is developing a relationship with him off the field. That’s where he believes they must find a connection.
“What’s kind of weird about that is it’s never been a big thing as far as who plays free and who plays strong,” Polamalu said. “What made Chris Hope and I very successful in the back end is we were great friends. The same with Ryan and I, we were great friends.
“With other teams it’s plug and play. Throw someone in there and they play. The strength of this organization has always been in the camaraderie and the relationships players have off the field. And we stand up for one another on the field. We have to develop those relationships. There are a lot of new faces here, a lot of young guys. It’s not putting your best 11 out there but the 11 best that worked well together out there.”
Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake is looking forward to seeing what his new safety combination can provide for a defense that once again lacked playmaking ability last season.
“They look great,” Lake said. “I’m really excited to see them play this year. Both of them have experience, especially Troy, and I just think they need to spend these three days understanding each other, getting to know each other’s personalities and I think they’ll carry that into training camp.”
Mitchell is no stranger to working in a new environment. The Steelers are his third team in six years. He spent his first four seasons in Oakland and then last season in Carolina.
“For us, it’s communication and trust,” Mitchell said. “A lot of it is us working together for the first time. He needs to know how I play and how I think, and me the same way. That only gets hammered out through repetitions. We have today, tomorrow and the day after and all of training camp. We’ve got plenty of time. We’re not trying to build Rome in a day. It will be a process. But it’s football, so it will be easy for us.”
Mitchell is one of at least three new starters on defense. One of the common threads for the new players is speed. Mitchell and first-round pick Ryan Shazier, an inside linebacker, run in the 4.3s in the 40-yard dash.
Adding speed was an unmistakable theme of the offseason, though Polamalu was cautionary when asked about the defense’s renovation.
“You can look at paper and see the times,” he said. “Everyone is great in shorts, though. We can put Usain Bolt and the whole track team out there, but it doesn’t make us a good football team. We’ll see how it works out.”
Ray Fittipaldo: firstname.lastname@example.org.