Over the course of the past couple of years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have undergone an uncommon amount of change, which could have been largely correlated with the fact that the team had finished 8-8 in consecutive seasons while failing to advance to the postseason.
In deference to general manager Kevin Colbert, the attitude used to approach the offseason in those years was that this was an 8-8 team and these were 8-8 players. It’s little surprise that a lot of things changed during those years.
In spite of the comparatively small number of changes made since last offseason, however, some of them have certainly been significant, and one of the biggest has been the transition at strong safety from the retired Troy Polamalu to third-year player Shamarko Thomas, taking on a starting role for the first time in his career after playing just a couple of snaps on defense all of last season.
It goes without saying that those are some big shoes to fill even for somebody who had been a regular defensive contributor, but, much like Markus Wheaton last season, he is slated for a dramatic uptick in playing time, though the Steelers do have Will Allen back as a safety net.
Of course, Thomas was drafted and has trained with the expectation of ultimately fulfilling this role, and it’s not at all surprising that it would have taken two years for it to happen. The concern for many has simply been the lack of snaps that he has gotten on defense, which can only partially but not completely be explained by the injuries he has dealt with.
Those were injuries suffered on special teams, where he has excelled as a gunner on the punting unit. He forced the returner to muff a punt against Carolina early in the season, which the Steelers recovered for a touchdown, and in the playoffs, he blocked a punt for a safety, so there is no denying that he has natural abilities.
And we have also gotten a preview of those abilities during his playing time in the preseason, where he has looked impressive at times, playing with noticeable explosion and pursuit upon diagnosing a play, showing off his honed instincts for reading an offense.
I do expect that Thomas’s transition into the starting lineup will be a successful one, assuming that he has overcome his injuries and shows that it will not be a habitual concern. There will be some growing pains, and no doubt at times his height will be a disadvantage, but I see him becoming a successful piece of this defensive puzzle, even if he is not immediately an impact player.
While he may not be very tall, he has some size to him, and I expect him to be able to play the run well, as an in the box safety, as Polamalu did, though perhaps not so expertly. Because he has the ability to cover, I expect the Steelers to take advantage of that as well. The biggest question is how the safety tandem works together.