After missing two games with a calf injury, the star safety attempted to come back against the Philadelphia Eagles this past weekend. But his day ended early after aggravating the injury and leaving in the first quarter.
Tomlin is taking the right approach by ruling out his best defensive player early on in the week and must continue to be cautious with Polamalu going forward.
A brief glance at the safety’s résumé proves how important he has been to the Steelers since his rookie season in 2003. He has made seven Pro Bowls, five All-Pro teams and was named the NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2010.
But individual accolades only show part of his value. His playmaking ability earns him those honors, but the most glowing reviews of Polamalu come from his teammates, and that is due to his leadership.
After Polamalu left the game against the Eagles, fellow Steelers safety Ryan Clark made the following comment, via ESPN’s Jamison Hensley:
I almost had a mental collapse when I saw him get hurt. Sometimes I think my love for him is a negative. When he's not playing, I want him out there. It's no indictment on the guys who come in. But part of why I play here and part of why I come back every year is to play with him.
Polamalu’s presence as “the quarterback of the defense,” per Hensley, is what has elevated him from an elite playmaker to a two-time Super Bowl champion.
The Steelers had to play the majority of the season without Polamalu in 2009, and he appeared in just five games that season. The team went 9-7 and was unlucky to not receive a wild-card spot.
If the team is forced to play without the All-Pro safety for the majority of the year, it will certainly risk a situation similar to 2009. But expectations are different for the Steelers than they are for other franchises.
The core of this team has won two championships and made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons. While winning a title is the goal for every team, the Steelers are one of the few franchises that have been perennial contenders during this era.
This team has the mindset that the season ends in February, not December. Pittsburgh is capable of making the playoffs without Polamalu, but it will not win a Super Bowl without him.
If the coaching staff is forced to risk missing the playoffs in order to have Polamalu healthy for a postseason run, that is a chance worth taking.
Now that Polamalu’s injury appears to be a recurring issue, the team must be extremely cautious and ensure that he is completely healthy before allowing him to return.
Like any great player, Polamalu will want to get back on the field as soon as possible. Tomlin and his coaching staff need to keep him on the sidelines long enough for him to be healthy during the playoffs.
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