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With Troy gone, it's Thomas' turn


In hindsight, the ceremonial passing of the torch came last summer, when the savvy veteran invited the up-and-comer to take a trip to California to train with him. To put in the physical work necessary to prepare oneself for the rigors of an NFL season, sure, but also to impart the kind of wisdom and insight that can be the difference between good and great.

The official passing of the torch came on April 9, when Troy Polamalu made known his decision to retire.

Last summer, most likely sensing his football mortality, Polamalu had invited teammate Shamarko Thomas to come to California to share in the way he trained his body for an NFL season. For years, Polamalu's best seasons had come after he had spent most of the offseason in California preparing himself physically and mentally.

Top photos of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Mike Mitchell.

It is reasonable to assume the Steelers now are expecting Thomas – their first of two fourth-round picks in the 2013 NFL Draft – to step into the lineup at safety alongside Mike Mitchell, not with the idea of replacing Polamalu but to develop his own individual skills in a manner that can contribute to good-enough-to-win-with defense.

Polamalu was one of six safeties on the Steelers roster at the end of the 2014 season. Today that position includes returning starter Mitchell, who will be entering his second season with the Steelers after signing as an unrestricted free agent; veteran Will Allen, re-signed to a one-year deal; special teams ace Ross Ventrone; Robert Golden, a restricted free agent; and Thomas.

When he came out of Syracuse, Thomas was touted as a hard-hitting strong safety with the added ability of lining up and covering receivers. In college, Thomas had taken wide receiver Robert Woods out of a game vs. USC, and Woods ended up being drafted in the second round in 2013 by the Buffalo Bills. As a rookie, the Steelers used Thomas some as a slot defender in their sub-packages.

But with Thomas, it always has been the injuries. He made his first NFL start on Sept. 22 of his rookie season, and he was playing some sub-package defense and special teams until an ankle injury on Nov. 10. Suddenly short-handed at safety, the Steelers signed Will Allen, who had left the Steelers for Dallas as an unrestricted free agent some months earlier only to have been released by the Cowboys. When Will Allen posted nine tackles, an interception, and a forced fumble in the next game, a game the Steelers won, he convinced the coaches to make him a regular part of the sub-package alignment. As a result, Thomas didn't get on the field for any meaningful defensive snaps upon his return.

Then in November 2014, with another opportunity to step in to help the team in a time of need created by a knee injury to Polamalu, Thomas was unable to play because of hamstring injuries during the same period.

The Steelers have said they're pretty much done with free agency, and so the next opportunity for the safety position to be re-shaped will be during the NFL Draft that begins on April 30. But with the defense needing a talent infusion at cornerback and reinforcements at outside linebacker, it's anticipated the early-round selections will be spent at those positions. Which means the 2015 Steelers are going to need big seasons from Mitchell and Thomas.

"I say it all the time in regards to people who have had a lap around the track with us whether it's an unrestricted free agent like Mike Mitchell or whether it's a drafted guy," said Coach Mike Tomlin. "That second lap around the track, that experience that comes with being in our environment and understanding how we do business is a platform for them to improve."

Thomas knows how the Steelers do business, and now it's time for him to show them he can take care of it.

"If given an opportunity, I think (Thomas) better be ready to seize it," said Tomlin. "I know that's his mentality, like the mentality of all our guys. But when you ask about open competition that's exactly what it is. I don't know that we have any pre-subscribed notions about how we're going to come out of this thing. I think our job at this time of year is to assemble as many capable men as we can and put them in as many competitive environments as we can in an effort to produce the best unit or team that we can."

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