Polamalu tries to restore edginess to Steelers
The Steelers' defense, one of the best in NFL history only a year ago, isn't the dominating unit it was expected to be. The once-relentless pressure is sporadic. The ability to finish off teams is vanishing. Maybe that little bit of edginess - the quality that Browns coach Eric Mangini says makes the Steelers "salty" - is missing, too. Troy Polamalu is about to see if he can bring it back. "There's always opportunities in every game, and I just don't think we are seizing those opportunities that we normally make," said Polamalu, who watched the Steelers go 2-2 while he was out with a knee injury. "But all the problems that we had are easily fixable." At least he hopes they are. The Steelers (3-2) are fourth in overall defense and second against the run - hardly a huge falloff - but they're only 14th against the pass and 18th in points allowed after leading the NFL in both categories last season. And they'll play the rest of the season without defensive end Aaron Smith (rotator cuff), one of the NFL's best run defenders, starting Sunday against the Browns (1-4). Since Polamalu went down with a torn medial collateral ligament in his left knee Sept. 10 against Tennessee, the fourth quarter has become a misadventure for a team that traditionally is as good as any in finishing off teams. The Steelers have been outscored 55-13 in the fourth quarter, and 71-20 dating to the Super Bowl against Arizona. Those down-the-stretch failures cost them losses to the Bears and Bengals and endangered victories against the Chargers and Lions. Last season, by comparison, the Steelers won six times after trailing or being tied in the fourth quarter. After Polamalu was hurt, the five-time Pro Bowl safety said he couldn't imagine any drop-off without him. Not surprisingly, there was a significant one by a defense that, in 2008, narrowly missed becoming the first since the 1970 NFL merger to lead the league in fewest points, yards, passing yards and rushing yards allowed in a season. "That's a big plus for us because of the splash plays that he can make," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said Thursday of Polamalu's return. "There's only one Troy and when he's not on the field, we're not the same." Polamalu won't concede the collapses wouldn't have happened if he had played. His teammates know what they were missing, and they recall how many plays Polamalu made against Tennessee - including a one-handed interception - before he was hurt. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, watching from afar, called them three of the finest plays he's seen a defensive player make, much less in one half. "I'm excited to have him back," safety Ryan Clark said. "It makes other teams have to plan for him, makes them figure out where he's going to be on blitz protection and coverages. He worked really hard this offseason, and you could see how good of shape he was in that first game and how prepared he was. So it was really sad to see him go out so early." The Steelers don't believe Polamalu is coming back too soon; they initially thought he would be out 3 to 6 weeks, and he's returning after four. Polamalu is wearing a brace that may slow him slightly but greatly protects the knee. "I think another month (of rest) would make a huge difference," Polamalu said. "The season is short. The season is long when you're healthy, but short when you're injured because you don't have as much rest time." While the Steelers aren't acknowledging it, they've dialed down their once-frequent blitzing without Polamalu to play more base defense. While they had seven sacks Sunday against Detroit, which has won once in 21 games the last two seasons, that was nearly as many as the eight they had in their first four games. Polamalu simply is "hard to handle," Mangini said, and creates plays for other players with his speed, versatility and instincts even when he doesn't make one himself. "He has great closing speed," Mangini said. "He's an excellent tackler. He's a good blitzer. He has good hands. He has great range. ... He seems like a really good guy. You appreciate those qualities from the outside looking in." Browns quarterback Derek Anderson has opposed Polamalu in high school, college and the NFL, so he doesn't need to be told what having Polamalu means to Pittsburgh. The Browns are 31st in passing yardage and total yardage, and now they must go against one of the NFL's premier defenders. "He trusts his instincts. He reads routes. He tries to read your eyes," said Anderson, who completed only 2 of 17 passes for 23 yards against the Bills on Sunday. "I know the magnitude and effect he can have on a game."