Steelers 2015 Missing Pieces: Troy Polamalu

Now that we have completed our look at the Pittsburgh Steelers’ 90-man roster heading into OTAs, it’s time to take a look back at the team’s 53-man roster from last year’s regular season, for the purpose of revisiting the contributions of the players that are no longer with the team, and whether or not those contributions have been adequately replaced.

Roster turnover is just a natural fact of today’s NFL, which have only become more prominent since the advent of free agency more than two decades ago. It’s very rare for a team to return all 11 starters on one side of the ball from one year to the next, let alone to do so for both the offense and defense.

The Steelers are certainly no exception to that rule, and they figure to have a number of lineup changes from 2014 to 2015—more so than usual, perhaps, with the retirement of three starters on the defensive side of the ball alone.

If we’re speaking historically, then clearly the greatest loss that the Steelers have suffered this offseason—perhaps in recent history—came with the retirement of strong safety Troy Polamalu, who at first blush would seem to be a surefire Hall of Famer in time, even if he doesn’t get in on the first ballot.

His career accolades need not be exhaustively detailed, but it includes a long list of All-Pro and Pro Bowl seasons, most recently having been named to the Pro Bowl in 2013 after intercepting two passes (returning one for a touchdown) and forcing a career-best five fumbles). He was also the Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.

Of course, his final year in Pittsburgh proved much more anticlimactic, at least as far as his own performance went. While his tackle total of 61 in 12 games played is commendable, it is misrepresentative of his performance, which included only for tackles for loss, and double-digit missed tackles.

In coverage, he failed to record an interception for the first time since 2007, when he missed five games, and is credited with just one pass defensed. His one forced fumble came on a sack of Joe Flacco by James Harrison. He registered no sacks of his own.

On the other hand, I do hold a higher opinion of Polamalu’s play during his final season than appears to be the majority perception. While it is clear that he became a better player in his later years as a box safety than in coverage, I still felt that he was a valuable asset to the team when healthy.

His pair of injuries during the season obviously robbed him of a good deal of his effectiveness, particularly the first one that resulted in him injuring his MCL, which affected him for the rest of the season.

What was clear by now, however, was that at this stage of Polamalu’s career, the Steelers would only be getting diminishing returns. Whether or not he could have still played effectively is only partly relevant to the decision to move on.

And the question the Steelers are now facing is not how to replace the Troy Polamalu of 2008, but the Troy Polamalu of 2014. Will Shamarko Thomas be able to surpass his mentor during his first season as a starter? If he contributes much of anything in the way of splash plays, he will already be a success. It’s what the team needs, and has been lacking.

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