By BOB LABRIOLA
After every Steelers game, there is always discussion about what happened and why, and sometimes those discussions involve differences of opinion. After the Steelers defeated the Browns last Sunday at Heinz Field, there was resounding agreement on one thing.
It was great to have Troy Polamalu back on the field.
Polamalu had missed four full games after spraining his knee in the first half of the Sept. 10 opener against the Tennessee Titans, and there was an undeniable impact on the Steelers defense.
Ranked No. 1 in the NFL in virtually every significant statistical category last season, the Steelers defense was a culprit in the come-from-ahead losses in Chicago and Cincinnati. But he was back on the field on Oct. 18 – about five calendar weeks after the injury – and the Steelers were happy to have him back.
"Troy [Polamalu] seems to be progressing relatively well in his march back to full participation," said Coach Mike Tomlin during his Tuesday news conference. "I may limit him at the early portion of this week, but we just want to keep that arrow pointed up on his participation, specifically the quality of that. I like where we are in terms of getting him started, getting him back in the fold and getting out there and making plays for us. I want to keep that arrow moving up. I may exercise a little caution here at the beginning of the week in terms of his participation to make sure he's ready to go for us on Sunday."
Detailing Polamalu's many contributions to the defense and the complications those pose for the opposing offense could get way too football-technical, but here's a simple statistic that somewhat puts it into perspective:
The unit that drove its team to the Super Bowl last season by making big plays at critical times, including plays that directly put points on the scoreboard, had two interceptions through its first five games – and one of those, a spectacular one at that – was turned in by Polamalu in the opener before he was injured.
After the first game of his "march back to full participation," Polamalu judged himself to be somewhat tentative, which Tomlin saw as a natural part of the process.
"I think everybody who plays this game at this level goes through some, 'man vs. himself,' battles in regards to being tentative, aggressive or cautious, particularly when your body's betraying you at times," said Tomlin. "That's something that comes with this game, particularly in the National Football League. Troy Polamalu won't be the only guy out there on the field with aches and pains and things that bother him physically during the course of the game, and all of those men will be making those judgments and decisions about whether to let their hair down or proceed with caution. That's something that happens on every play, every weekend."
What happened on one play during a Browns game that was still tied, 0-0, when it happened spoke volumes about Polamalu's value.
The Browns were having some success with Joshua Cribbs running their version of the Wildcat and had moved into scoring position by utilizing it, when someone on the Cleveland sideline decided it was a good time to have Cribbs throw a pass from the formation. But Polamalu read Cribbs' eyes, broke on the ball and made the interception that started a series of events ultimately ending in a 27-14 Steelers win.
The joy of that moment for Steelers fans quickly switched to apprehension when Polamalu stayed on the turf for a time in obvious pain, before getting up and hobbling to the sideline.
"What happened is that when he intercepted that ball down there in the red zone – good to have Troy Polamalu back by the way – he banged his knee on the ground," said Tomlin. "So it's really something separate and different from the injury he sustained weeks ago. That created a situation where he hobbled a little bit around for the rest of the day."
And so the week of preparations begins for the undefeated Minnesota Vikings, who will be in town for a 1 p.m. game this Sunday at Heinz Field, and the Steelers will have their All-Pro safety one more week along in his comeback from injury.
"It wasn't done with any mind in terms of the schedule," said Tomlin. "When he was ready to go medically, we were going to allow him to go. We don't put any more emphasis on this Minnesota Vikings game than we did on the Cleveland game a week ago. We don't live in that world, we don't approach it in that way. Every game's a big game. This is the biggest game of the year for us because we're staring at it. It's Tuesday and it's on Sunday, so we got all eyes pointed toward that opportunity."
When the Steelers get there, they will have Polamalu with them.
"His presence is significant," said Tomlin, "and we're glad to have him back out there."