Troy Polamalu had a dream/nightmare/premonition this year that led him to speculate about where his future might lie.
“What if our corners went down and I was forced to play corner all year?” Polamalu wondered. “I’d go from linebacker to corner and I don’t play any safety!”
Yes, he probably could do that, but, as he enters his 12th NFL season, Polamalu finds himself back where he belongs, at strong safety after a year in which he played more at inside linebacker than he did his given position.
That is because of rookie Ryan Shazier’s presence at the mac inside linebacker spot. Last year, they did not trust the pass-coverage skills of then-rookie linebacker Vince Williams after Larry Foote was lost for the season with an injury in the opener. Shazier showed off his coverage skills very pointedly Saturday night with a leaping interception.
But last year, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau devised a defense in which Polamalu replaced Williams in passing downs when there were five other defensive backs on the field as well.
Polamalu responded to the new position by not missing a defensive snap in 2013 for the first time in his career. Saturday night, he was back at safety and making contact for the first time this year. Coach Mike Tomlin, in deference to Polamalu’s 12th NFL season and 33rd birthday, kept him out of all live drills at training camp and did not suit him up for the preseason opener.
“Of course, I appreciate it,” said Polamalu, adding it was not among his easiest training camps because he missed time with injuries in previous ones.
Nevertheless, one year after playing every down, Polamalu feels as healthy at 33 as he did one year ago and feels he can duplicate that feat.
“God willing, I prepared for that, for sure. I feel good. I’m not going to tell you a lie and be like ‘I’m in the greatest shape of my life.’ In truth, I’m in the best shape that I can be in right now, in my 12th year. Time will tell whether that’s relevant this year.”
It always does, and other things might go into where and how Polamalu plays this season, a season in which the defense will again count on him heavily. Can he play strong safety as he has in the past, which includes his eighth Pro Bowl last season and a NFL defensive player of the year in 2010?
“It depends, you know, because my role has changed so much through the years. So, it really all depends on how coach LeBeau wants to use me. It’s evolved, its changed, it’s kind of done everything.”
Asked his favorite role in that defense, Polamalu replied with a story.
“I was talking to one player, and he was saying, ‘I really enjoy playing in space,’ and I said, ‘I enjoy being wherever the ball is.’
“Wherever the ball is, of course, that’s where I want to be.”
His 32 interceptions, including two last season, rank seventh in team history,. His five defensive touchdowns rank second in team history. He has been around the ball quite a bit and might get more chances to do so this season by playing his natural position.
Shazier’s presence will allow that, and Polamalu came away impressed with the rookie’s pro debut Saturday night.
“To make that kind of impact in one game, in a preseason game, has to be a confidence booster,’’ Polamalu said. “I did not do anything like that my whole rookie year. I’m sure that is going to really give him a lot of confidence, and, hopefully, he can carry that into the next game and the season.”
Polamalu played in 16 games as a rookie in 2003, but none were starts, which comes as a surprise to many, but not Polamalu, even looking back on what might turn into a Hall of Fame career.
“I wasn’t ready. I played in everything except start. I played all the special teams, nickel and dime defenses, goal line. But I definitely was not ready to start.’’
Ed Bouchette: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @EdBouchette.