The Pittsburgh Steelers currently have six safeties among their 12 defensive backs on the 53-man roster. Only three of them are fully healthy.
Second-year safety Shamarko Thomas spent a few weeks on the sidelines with a hamstring injury, in response to which the Steelers called up Ross Ventrone from the practice squad. The journeyman defensive back has quickly established himself as a special teams ace.
However, he suffered a hamstring injury of his own in the last game, just in time to make way for Thomas’ return. Of course, Thomas went on to injure his other hamstring on Sunday night, bringing into question their availability for the team’s next game.
To top it off, Pro Bowl safety Troy Polamalu was injured after attempting to lay a big hit for a tackle against the Baltimore Ravens. The ball carrier bounced off the contact, and ricocheted off Stephon Tuitt, who then knocked the player on to the back of Polamalu’s legs.
Head coach Mike Tomlin confirmed after the game that the 33-year-old did suffer a knee sprain, but he declined to elaborate at the time. Polamalu, for his part, said that he was fine after the game, but we will likely learn more about the extent of the injury later today during Tomlin’s press conference.
Should all three players be out, that would leave the team with just three safeties—not to mention down two key special teams players—which will put Will Allen and Robert Golden in the spotlight.
Over the course of the past two seasons, Allen has played a critical role in the defense. He filled in 2012 when Polamalu missed several games due to injury. He outperformed his competition, and that led to him getting an opportunity for a starting job elsewhere to begin the 2013 season.
That quickly flared out, but the Steelers were more than happy to take advantage and re-sign him as he established himself as the sixth defensive back in the team’s quarters package, which became their primary defensive package as the season wore on.
He may be getting his first start with the Steelers since 2012 if Polamalu’s injury requires him to miss time, this time paired up with the newcomer, Mike Mitchell. The two logged time after Polamalu’s injury last week, as well as early in the offseason while the veteran was out west training on his own.
It is curious, though, whether or not Allen would have indeed been the first player up had Thomas not also gotten injured in the game. Thomas is listed as the backup strong safety, with Allen the backup at free safety. And when Mitchell missed a few snaps earlier this year, it was Allen who filled in.
But the Steelers stressed this year that they wanted to keep Thomas in the role he was being groomed for, which was Polamalu’s heir apparent. That meant no nickel work while he focused on honing his craft. With Thomas missing time with injury, he may be missing out on an opportunity to experience his future.