Strong safety Troy Polamalu is unquestionably the straw that stirs the drink for the Pittsburgh Steelers defense. Polamalu was injured two weeks ago against the Cincinnati Bengals when he strained his Achilles tendon.
Out for the second consecutive week tonight against the Carolina Panthers, Polamalu is likely finished for the remainder of the regular season. The Steelers have not placed the safety on injured reserve and are hopeful that he will be able to return for their playoff run.
So what does his injury really mean for the Steelers defense?
Yes, Polamalu is a great athlete, but the thing that truly separates him from all other defensive backs in the NFL is his ability to anticipate what the offense is trying to do.
That is why he has the freedom in the Steelers defense to freelance in certain situations to make independent decisions—gambling at times, but often correctly gambling.
If he cannot return for the playoffs, these are the aspects of the game that are going to feel his absence the most:
The defensive play calling will get even more conservative than it already has been at times this year.
Without out Polamalu's presence, we will see more nickel and dime formations in an attempt to cover up for the drop off in talent with backup Ryan Mundy filling in. Mundy has an additional handicap of playing out of position as he is normally a free safety.
Less of that.
Polamalu does two things in the Steelers blitzing schemes. He can cover so much ground in the secondary that it allows the six-man pass rushes where the Steelers can generate immediate pressure on an opposing quarterback.
Troy himself is one of the best blitzing players in the NFL from the secondary and you can bet that Dick LeBeau is not going to be calling Ryan Mundy's number is similar situations.
I'm not as concerned with this one as some of the other areas, only because the Steelers are so strong as a unit defending against the run.
It is however reasonable to assume that teams will have a bit more success running the ball, as Polamalu often comes out of nowhere to make many unassisted tackles, especially on the perimeter.
Going back to the beginning of this article, Polamalu is the best in the business at anticipating the offense. This goes beyond the overall flow of a play, but to reading a quarterback's progression in the passing tree.
How many times have we seen him come out of nowhere to make an interception or defend a pass?
Even better is that he seems to make these types of plays at the most important times in a game. It is not unprecedented to see him begin on one side of a formation while being responsible for a receiver on the other side of the formation.
Opposing quarterbacks know one thing. They don't know where he is going to be—and they don't know what he is going to be doing. This creates hesitation and in the NFL if you hesitate, you make mistakes.
I think this is a big one. A defensive secondary is a team within itself, and Polamalu is the captain of that unit. He makes the adjustments for them and leads by example. For the other players in the secondary, they don't have to worry about what he is doing or where he is going to be.
Now you have Ryan Mundy in the lineup.
Do you think that a Ryan Clark might just cheat a bit in Mundy's direction to try and "help" in case of a breakdown. This is how you get caught out of position and let the offense get one by you.
Polamalu's loss is a huge deal.
I don't think any other injury, other than perhaps to Ben Roethlisberger, could have hurt this team more.
We saw all too painfully last year how much Troy means to the Steelers defense.
If Pittsburgh is going to bring home Lombardi Trophy number seven this year, he is going to need to be back on the field and at full strength.