Steelers' Polamalu eager to see if knee better

BY foxsports • September 10, 2010

Now that the Steelers know Ben Roethlisberger will be suspended for four games, they're about to get the answer to their second most-pressing question of the offseason.

Can Troy Polamalu's twice-injured left knee stand up to the stress of another full NFL season? They'll start finding out Sunday, when the Steelers - without Roethlisberger - play Atlanta in their season opener.

Polamalu is one of the NFL's most game-altering defensive players, a multitalented safety who is equally effective in covering the run, dropping into coverage and serving as a linebacker-like pass rusher.

The five-time Pro Bowl player missed 11 full games last season and most of two others, with a predictable effect on the Steelers' defense. The Steelers were 4-0 when Polamalu played more than a handful of snaps in a game. When he didn't, they were 5-7.

A defense that led the NFL in most major statistical categories in 2008 managed only 12 interceptions last season, eight fewer than they had in 2008. That season, Polamalu made seven interceptions.

Polamalu's knee felt fine throughout offseason workouts, a conditioning program he goes through on his own in California and training camp. He played during the exhibition season and wasn't held out of any practices because of knee discomfort.

''I wasn't going half-speed in the preseason,'' Polamalu said. ''I prepared the way I would normally prepare for a game.''

However, Polamalu said nothing he does physically is comparable to playing during a 16-game season, and even he won't know how his left knee and quadriceps will hold up until Sunday.

Asked if he is 100 percent, Polamalu said, ''There's a lot of speculation about that, and I can't answer until I get out on the football field for four quarters.''

Polamalu sprained his left medical collateral ligament in the 2009 season opener against Tennessee, a game in which he was dominating before getting hurt late in the second quarter. He ran from one side of the field to another to stop running back Chris Johnson on a goal-line play at the 2 and made an exceptional, one-handed leaping interception of a Kerry Collins pass.

He missed four games with that injury, then returned to play three more games before injuring his posterior cruciate ligament a few plays into a game against Cincinnati. He missed the final seven games, and the Steelers missed the playoffs.

A coincidence? Probably not.

The Steelers' pass rush also suffered without Polamalu, and so did their pass coverage, which became highly susceptible to the deep ball. They also had 22 takeaways, or seven fewer than they had the season before. And they tumbled to No. 16 in pass defense after leading the league in 2008.

If nothing else, Polamalu's absence proved that there is no doubt about the Steelers' most valuable player.

''Troy has the most versatility of all the backs I've coached,'' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. ''He literally can do anything. If you ask him to blitz, he's going to be a great blitzer. If you ask him to cover a team's best wide receiver, he's probably going to do a good job there. If you ask him to play in the linebacker area and chase down a runner, he'll do that as well. And he can coordinate the (pass) coverages because he has a great knowledge of the defense.''

With a healthy Polamalu and defensive end Aaron Smith returning - Smith missed most of the season with a shoulder injury - the Steelers believe they can be an elite-level defense again. They were No. 5 overall last season but, to them, that represented a major falloff in performance from the unit the was No. 1 in total yardage, passing yardage and points allowed in 2008.

''You would like to think that,'' Polamalu said. ''It wasn't like we were horrible last year, but obviously that's behind us. We'll find out how good we really are through a 16-game schedule.''

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