PITTSBURGH — Troy Polamalu’s strained right Achilles’ tendon isn’t allowing him to practice most weeks. The Steelers don’t want to take the chance that one of the NFL’s most valuable defensive players will aggravate the injury and won’t be able to play.
The rest of the NFL must be wondering what the five-time Pro Bowl safety could possibly do better if he were fully healthy.
Despite his sore foot, Polamalu made a rally-stopping interception late in the fourth quarter of the Steelers’ 19-16 overtime decision Sunday in Buffalo. He also made a fumble recovery, another play that illustrated how his alertness and ability to decipher plays might be unmatched in the league.
In his last two games, Polamalu has accounted for three turnovers by himself.
“He’s all over the place,” Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick said. “I think he’s one of the best defenders in the league for a reason. He just flies around and he has a great football sense in terms of reading plays, relying on his instincts and reacting to what he sees.”
He’s also doing it with almost no practice. No wonder Polamalu’s No. 43 is the third most popular in jersey sales among all NFL players, trailing only quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Drew Brees. He’s No. 1 among defensive players.
“We simply want to take every precaution possible to keep this man up and running,” coach Mike Tomlin said Tuesday. “It’s obvious he’s playing really good football for us and we want that to continue. There’s a fine line in terms of that, when you talk about limiting someone’s (practice) participation, but he is a veteran football player and a good one. We’re going to do the best we can to get him to the stadium in one piece.”
With the Steelers (8-3) headed to Baltimore (8-3) on Sunday to play for the AFC North lead, they’re being reminded weekly how badly they missed Polamalu when two left knee injuries limited him to three full games last season. He missed their final seven games, a stretch that included most of their season-wrecking five-game losing streak.
Polamalu, who has four interceptions this season, recently said he wasn’t sure how he was playing, but that he expected to make more plays. The Steelers use him in so many roles other than pass defender — he’s a key player in their run defense, and in their pass rush — that mere numbers sometimes don’t accurately quantify his play.
“I can’t tell you too many games that I walked away from satisfied with my performance,” Polamalu said. “In my mind, there’s more plays out there that I should make.”
With his million-dollar hair billowing out of his helmet — yes, it is insured for that amount by the shampoo he endorses — Polamalu’s ability to run down receivers and running backs from one sideline to the other might be rivaled only by Ravens safety Ed Reed.
“I’m biased, so I’m probably not the person to ask, but I think he’s playing great,” Steelers safety Ryan Clark said. “He’s hard on himself, as most competitors are and most great players are. That’s why we love him, and that’s just what makes him great. He’s going to want to make every play for us and we need him to make a lot of big plays. We put him one-on-one with tight ends, we put him one-on-one with receivers. We don’t care.”
Despite the Steelers’ record, this also hasn’t been a truly satisfying season for Polamalu — although he hasn’t missed any games with injuries — partly because of the way NFL games are being officiated.
He was outspoken in his opposition to the league’s decision to tightly patrol big hits that can cause concussions and top players to be sidelined. Despite having at least seven concussions during his career, Polamalu said big hits are as much a part of football as diving catches and 50-yard runs.
Polamalu also said former and current players should be consulted when the league determines fines, although he didn’t explain how a Raider, for example, could pass judgment on how much Steelers linebacker James Harrison should be fined for a roughing the passer penalty.
Polamalu himself has not been fined, but he wants to be able to play the game he grew up playing. And the game he’s playing now, despite being injured for a second successive season.
“I don’t think you can make every type of hit obsolete, from horse-collar tackling to whatever kind of tackling there is,” he said. “You’re taking away what attracts people to this game.”