It was just a couple of years ago, but it seems so long ago. It was on April 10, 2015 that Pittsburgh Steelers All-Pro safety Troy Polamalu announced that he would be retiring from the NFL following a career that spanned 12 seasons, two Super Bowl rings, eight Pro Bowls, and four nods to the first-team All-Pro list, with another on the second team. He finished the 2010 season as the Defensive Player of the Year.
It is quite simply a difficult thing to attempt to quantify what Polamalu meant to this defense, but the best way to explain it would be to watch the Steelers when he was on the field and then when he was out with one of his many injuries. His dynamic and at time unpredictable style of play allowed the team to run a defense that they couldn’t otherwise because they had him in the lineup.
It may be a bit obvious, but two years on, they don’t have him there anymore, nor do they have some other Polamalu on the field, a player who can deliver the sort of performances that he did time and time again that helped turn the tide of many a game over the course of more than a decade.
There are few players who have ever played the game who could make the case that they put together a more impressive highlight reel in the NFL than Polamalu. His knack for the timely and spectacular play is nearly without rival, but it was everything that he did in between those plays that allowed them to happen.
The former first-round pick is going to end up in the Hall of Fame someday, even if it takes a bit more than five years from his retirement. And whenever you have a player of that caliber leave the game, there simply is no replacing him, at least not in the sense of duplicating the performance that he delivered.
But the Steelers could sure use somebody like him, and while they have a pretty good group of safeties on hand, they don’t have anybody who has given indications at that position that they could develop into that sort of role.
Perhaps the player on defense that most resembles the kind of impact that Polamalu had not only on the defense’s performance and results, but the style of play that they were able to deliver, is fourth-year inside linebacker Ryan Shazier, who is coming off of his first Pro Bowl season.
This is certainly not a surprising answer, as he has drawn the comparison before—and many a misguided fan has suggested moving him to safety—but the case has only grown stronger this past season with the young veteran’s strides made in coverage, wrapping up the season with four interceptions, including the playoffs.
Unfortunately, he also bears a resemblance to the great one in the sense that he has a tendency to get dinged up relatively frequently. He needs to stay on the field more, and the Steelers need him to continue to develop into that dynamic and unpredictable piece that gives opposing offensive coordinators heart palpitations in the night.