Absence of Steelers' Polamalu palpable
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Can we expect any sort of recantation from Troy Polamalu?
I mean since Seattle Seahawks coach Jim Mora has gone ahead and broken the recantation ice, taking back Monday his comments from Sunday in which he trashed his own place-kicker minutes after a loss to the Chicago Bears.
Having slept on it, the head coach decided he should have been a little more temperate, a little more charitable.
So he recanted.
Two weeks earlier, Polamalu had done the rhetorical opposite, being too charitable, too gracious in his assessment of the Steelers' predicament upon learning they would be without him for the next three to six weeks. Troy said the Steelers' defense might actually be better off without him, which was as demonstrably wrong as anything Mora said.
But Troy was trying to be nice, which is why he can't recant.
You can't recant that.
You can't recant the publicly stated opinion that, with Ty Carter filling in for your inimitable All-Pro and the remainder of the defense scheduled for significant week-to-week improvement anyway, everything ought to be fine, if not better.
Even after consecutive fourth-quarter defensive collapses that submerged Mike Tomlin's team at 1-2, I wouldn't anticipate a recant.
I wouldn't anticipate much improvement, either.
"Antonio Gates is a matchup problem when you have a guy like Troy [Polamalu], so, needless to say, when you don't have a guy like Troy in a week like this, we've got to get in the lab a little bit," Tomlin said yesterday as his Troy-less defense considers a looming confrontation with the San Diego Chargers' tight end, among other spectacular lightning bolts. "We've got to figure out a way to slow this guy down."
Well, good luck there in the lab, because two weeks into this no-Troy-in-Mudville funk, it has become all too obvious exactly what No. 43 means to the Steelers' defense, and I'm not just talking about the nettlesome little factoid that all interceptions ceased immediately the moment Polamalu wobbled to the sideline after helping to block a field goal in the opener against Tennessee.
"Troy understands the game," Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis was explaining this time last week. "Prior to his getting hurt in the first half of the Tennessee game, he made three of the finest defensive football plays I've seen in a long time."
All it would have taken was one fine play to seal a victory in the final minutes in Cincinnati. All it would have taken was one fine play to seal another one in Chicago 10 days ago. A little bit o' Troy goes a long way, so don't think for a minute that this particular knee injury isn't the difference between the Steelers starting 3-0 and instead being within a whisker of 0-3.
For all tangible damage done to Dick LeBeau's defense when you remove Polamalu (the Steelers are 14-3 when he intercepts, for example), the intangible impact is probably worse. Troy's absence appears to have a deflating effect at all levels of the scheme, unless such irritants as James Harrison's projected sack total of five for 2009 (after a club-record 16 a year ago) and LaMarr Woodley's projected sack total of zero for 2009 (after 11.5 a year ago) are wholly separate issues.
"We haven't changed what we're doing schematically in terms of how we attack people because Troy's not back there," Tomlin insisted yesterday. "It may look different because he has a unique skill set and he can do some unique things. But our play calling hasn't changed at all."
That might be, but it has to have a chilling effect, at least subconsciously, because once Troy is gone from the secondary, what you do with the people in front of it almost has to be more cautious. The Steelers had five sacks in September. That used to be a day's work. Pressure is perhaps most notably absent with opponents in the red zone, where they're 5 for 7 this season, including four touchdowns.
Chargers sniper Philip Rivers, one of two quarterbacks taken ahead of Ben Roethlisberger in the 2004 draft (Eli Manning being the other), likely hasn't seen a Steelers defense so vulnerable to his talents and those of the rangy wideout Vincent Jackson.
Rivers has 739 passing yards in San Diego's previous two games, with the Jackson target accounting for 261 of those. Come Sunday night, with Troy still likely two weeks from ready, who will really be surprised to see further evidence that Rivers-Jackson is one of the hottest connections in the AFC.
The Steelers will wear their throwback uniforms for this prime timer, but the audience doesn't want a defense that reminds them of the '60s, only of the first half Sept. 10.
First Published September 30, 2009 12:00 am