PITTSBURGH – He has rejoined the Steelers with a different view of football and life.
No, not Ben Roethlisberger. I'm talking Troy Polamalu.
With all the offseason attention surrounding the disgraced Steelers quarterback, Polamalu's return to the practice field has gotten overshadowed. It shouldn't. Polamalu is just as important a factor in Pittsburgh's 2010 success as Roethlisberger's imminent return following a four- to six-game NFL suspension.
The Steelers lost all seven games last season that were decided by a touchdown or less, missing the playoffs and a chance to defend their Super Bowl title. Polamalu played in only one of those defeats. The Steelers won the other four games he started before the strong safety was permanently sidelined by the second of two knee injuries.
"Five of our games were three-point losses," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said after a recent minicamp. "You're basically talking one play in each of those games. A playmaker is probably going to make the difference in those games.
"Troy is a playmaker. He's a splash guy."
And a changed one following what could have been his final NFL season.
Polamalu initially injured his medial collateral ligament during a season-opening win against Tennessee. Polamalu heard a "pop" when his left leg bent inward as he tried to recover a blocked field goal.
"I knew what happened as soon as it happened, but not to what extent," Polamalu said. "I actually thought it was a little worse than what it was."
The worst was yet to come. After missing four games, Polamalu now admits he rushed back into the starting lineup before he was completely healthy. Polamalu reinjured his MCL and damaged another ligament a month later during an 18-12 loss to Cincinnati. He wouldn't play again in 2009 - and for good reason.
"If I would have sustained any type of injury like I sustained the first week, I would have blown out my knee," Polamalu said. "Then you're talking about career-ending type things."
That would have proven disastrous for the 29-year-old Polamalu and the Steelers. It already was bad enough that LeBeau had to scale back the creative schemes he uses when able to deploy Polamalu in different spots and roles across the field. Poor communication between Polamalu's replacements and the rest of the secondary compounded the problem. The NFL's top-ranked defense in 2008 slipped to No. 5 and surrendered almost a touchdown more each game.
"He's the main cog. Everybody knows that," Steelers free safety Ryan Clark said of Polamalu. "This defense looked totally different when you don't have Troy - and it's not just the hair."
Polamalu's flowing mane - combined with his second Super Bowl ring and fifth Pro Bowl appearance in six NFL seasons - led to his biggest commercial endorsement to date with Head and Shoulders shampoo. But being unable to play kept the soft-spoken Polamalu from letting such exposure and success get to his head.
"It was very humbling," said Polamalu, who was coming off a 73-tackle, seven-interception campaign. "I take things for granted. To sit out as long as I did, it sucks but you learn how to really appreciate the little things."
Polamalu was so eager to resume practicing that he joined teammates for offseason workouts before the NFL draft. Polamalu usually spends the entire spring training in California to remain with his wife and infant son.
"Honestly, there's nothing that can ever replace family time," Polamalu said. "It's kind of disheartening every time you leave them. But once you get here, it's awesome because there are such great guys. We all get along really well. Now that we have a lot of familiar faces back from the past, it makes it even better."
Polamalu is referring to Pittsburgh reacquiring or re-signing teammates from previous Super Bowl teams like linebacker Larry Foote, cornerback Bryant McFadden and wide receiver Antwaan Randle El. But the biggest name back in the locker room after a brief absence is Roethlisberger, who was cleared to return Thursday after undergoing NFL-mandated counseling for sexually charged off-field improprieties.
Asked whether there will be an even greater onus placed upon Pittsburgh's defense in Roethlisberger's absence, Polamalu said, "Honestly, we've never really thought about that. We've always felt that we've been a defense that has to choke people out to win games anyway. Whether Ben is there or not, we're not going to place any extra burden on ourselves.
"Obviously, he's been a big key to our success in the past but we don't really worry about what's going on with the other side of the ball during games. We just figure that if we handle our business, we win games."
That becomes much easier for the Steelers when an early favorite for 2010 NFL Comeback Player of the Year is wreaking havoc.
"He makes us different," LeBeau said. "He's one of those rare players who can be at every level of the defense. He can be at the line of scrimmage, at the 'backer area and he can make plays deep. It gives you so much flexibility. There's almost no limit to the things you can ask him to do and get done in a game.
"It feels pretty good to see him out there moving around."