As a Pittsburgh native, I have been geographically endowed with two blessings: Primanti Bros. and a perennially great Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Having watched some of the most celebrated defenses of the last decade, I would not hesitate to sum up that era with one word: Polamalu.
Perhaps the most instinctual player of his generation, Troy Polamalu will be remembered for his uncanny ability to find the football and make a play when it matters most. Whether it be diving over the line to sack the quarterback as soon as he snaps the ball or a timely interception when the game is on the line, if anyone ever fit the role as a "prime-time performer," it's Polamalu.
However, in recent years, questions of health and durability have loomed over the five-time All-Pro and 2010 Defensive Player of the Year. His explosive play sometimes works to his detriment, as his 5'10", 207-lb frame is not always so forgiving against running backs and tight ends that outweigh him by as much as 50 pounds (Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski clocks in at 6'6", 265 lbs).
While there is no doubting his abilities on the field when he is healthy, the various ailments accumulated over his 10-year NFL career could limit his productivity in the future.
Already this season, Polamalu has missed two games. His absence was most evident in the Steelers' most recent 34-31 loss to the Oakland Raiders. Unable to get off the field on third downs (when Oakland was 7-for-12) and allowing a monster 64-yard run to the Raiders' Darren McFadden, the Steelers seriously missed Polamalu's presence.
Considering his recent past with injuries (not to mention several documented concussions) I'm only confident that he may be able to play 10 to 12 games a year. And yes, while the "next man up" mentality is prevalent in the NFL, the proof is in the pudding for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
When Polamalu isn't on the field, they are a different defense.
His warrior-like style of playing defensive back is one that will surely be emulated by young safeties, but it should come with a warning: There is a limit to what your body can absorb. Polamalu's instinctual abilities will never fail him; if anything, it will be his physical ones.
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