While some of his teammates ran through special-teams drills in the morning, Troy Polamalu bounced around on an adjacent field, cutting, weaving and dribbling with another ball.
Make no mistake, there was no World Cup quality in the way he was playing soccer. But there was some assurance, even mild relief, he could. And would.
The sight of Troy Polamalu on a playing field, especially a football field, is a welcome sight to the Steelers, who spent too much time last season without their five-time Pro Bowl safety.
He missed 11 games, including the final seven, with a knee injury that was more troublesome than he and coach Mike Tomlin would let on. The Steelers never placed him on injured reserve, hoping he might be able to play in the postseason or Super Bowl, if they were able to get that far.
Turns out, that notion was as wishful as their playoff hopes. It was not until late March, early April, when Polamalu said his knee felt well enough to start playing basketball.
"It took a little longer than I anticipated," Polamalu said of the healing process. "I'm fine now. It just took longer in the offseason. There's no way I could have played in the Super Bowl or anything like that. Maybe I was just fooling myself to work toward something like that."
Polamalu never had surgery to repair the damage to the medial collateral ligament and posterior cruciate ligament because doctors told him the timetable and prognosis for recovery are too unpredictable. So he chose to let it heal on its own, and he's glad it did, even if the recovery lasted longer than anticipated.
The important thing is, he at training camp, ready to practice and play, even if there remains some lingering concern how his knee will respond if, and when, someone falls on it.
That's what happened when his left knee was injured in the season opener against the Tennessee Titans. He missed four games, returned in Week 6 against Cleveland and reinjured the knee while tackling Cincinnati's Cedric Benson Nov. 15. He did not play again.
"I feel good, good enough to practice," Polamalu said Tuesday after a morning practice at St. Vincent College in Latrobe. "But it's a whole other story when you have to play. You really can't say how confident you are until you really have people falling on you and your legs.
"Exploding off it hasn't been a problem at all. You can simulate that through training. But you can't really simulate people falling on it and people around your legs. But I honestly don't think that's a huge problem at all."
Polamalu said his biggest concern is trying to make sure the Steelers do not repeat what happened last season when they finished 9-7 and their defense, despite ranking fifth in the NFL, played little like the unit that had terrorized the National Football League a year earlier during their Super Bowl run.
His absence, and the loss of defensive end Aaron Smith, who missed the final 11 games with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, were big reasons for the drop in performance. He said he is eager to help rectify that problem.
"I didn't play hardly at all last year, so I do have a little extra healing in my body, other than from my knee, and that's a good thing," said Polamalu, who reported to camp at 215 pounds, 10 pounds lighter than last season. "I'm real excited for this year as a team because we have a challenge we've never had before. For that, I'm most excited about.
"Obviously, everyone in the AFC North is gearing up how to beat our defense. They want the Hines Ward receiver, and two teams go get two top receivers," he said, a reference to the Baltimore Ravens obtaining Anquan Boldin from the Arizona Cardinals and the Cincinnati Bengals signing Terrell Owens.
"They get slot receivers in order to run three-receiver sets through our defense. They do things specifically geared to try to beat us, and we're not even nearly the front-runners [in the division]. We cherish that underdog role.
"Fortunately, since I've been here, whenever we've been expected to do something we haven't done anything good [before], we've kind of prevailed. It will be interesting if we're able to do that this year."
In the brief time he played last year, Polamalu was sensational. He had three interceptions in 15 quarters, tying for the team lead, including a sensational pick in the season opener against Tennessee.
But, without him, the Steelers made few plays, if any, in the secondary. They had only nine other interceptions and went the first 15 games without an interception by a cornerback.
"It's tremendous having him back," said defensive end Brett Keisel.
"You can ask anyone in league, he's one of the greater players in our game. There isn't anyone that I've seen in the league who can do what he does and cover ground like he can cover in a short amount of time. To have a guy of that caliber out there doing what he does, it only makes us all better."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published August 4, 2010 4:00 AM