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Rebuilding A Champion: Shamarko Thomas Facing Impossible Act To Follow

The Pittsburgh Steelers spent much of the time between their last playoff victory and now replenishing their roster in preparation for their next chance to make a push for a championship. Last season showed signs that the team was on its way out of that transitional phase after posting a division-winning 11-5 record following back to back .500 seasons.

Still, the Steelers failed to make it out of the divisional round, and have lost their last three postseason contests, dating back to Super Bowl XLV. They followed up that 2010 run with a 12-4 wildcard campaign that saw a first-round exit, and subsequently failed to return to the playoffs the following two years.

So how close might they be to righting the ship and returning to that place that they have been more than any other franchise—that is, holding up the Lombardi Trophy? One way to attempt to measure that would be to compare how this season’s lineup projects against past teams.

For these purposes, it might be helpful to cite both the 2008 and 2010 teams, which are, respectively, the teams that have claimed their most recent Super Bowl championship and their most recent Super Bowl appearance.

With the start of the 2015 season, the Steelers are embarking on their first campaign in over a decade without Troy Polamalu, once a perennial All-Pro and in all likelihood a future Hall of Famer in spite of the rarity with which true safeties actually get inducted.

In other words, at least with respect to the strong safety position, it’s a virtual certainty that this spot in the roster will be weaker today than it was during the years in which the Steelers made a run at the Super Bowl or won it all.

In both the 2008 and 2010 seasons, Polamalu posted career-high interceptions totals, finishing each year with seven. In 2010, he also added a forced fumble and a touchdown, which helped earn him the league’s Defensive Player of the Year award, even though an Achilles injury ended up slowing him down during the postseason run that culminated in a loss in the Super Bowl.

Following his retirement, the Steelers are banking on third-year safety Shamarko Thomas stepping up and cementing his claim as the heir apparent, having spent time training with Polamalu last offseason in preparation for this moment.

In spite of the fact that he was seemingly drafted with the idea in mind that he would take over the strong safety position, he received curiously little playing time last season, though injuries and the quality play of Will Allen do go a long way toward explaining why that was.

Allen, too, is back, but even though he suggested that he doesn’t know what will happen, he did acknowledge that Thomas ran with the starters during the spring. Others seem to disagree, but I think it’s safe to say at this point that Allen is merely the fallback option at this point in case of disaster.

Thomas’ play as a starter will be one of the most critical developments to follow this season, because it will go a long way toward determining just what kind of defense the Steelers are capable of being in the near future. If he comes out and plays well right away, then perhaps those championship aspirations can remain intact.

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