Invariably, during a nationally televised Steelers game in which S Troy Polamalu isn't playing, the production crew will put up a graphic showing the Steelers' record with and without their marquee player. Needless to say, given his amazing feats of athleticism, the conventional wisdom espoused by the broadcasting brain trust would lead the casual viewer to believe the Steelers have little chance to win without Troy Polamalu.
Conventional wisdom, like abstinence, sounds good on paper, but in real life isn't such a reliable thing to follow.
The conventional wisdom about Polamalu as preached by the mainstream media may have been accurate in years past: 2009 (five wins, six losses without him) or 2010 (1-1 without him), but isn't so true this year, and it was the changes made due to his prolonged absence that foreshadow life after Troy.
The Steelers have lost five games this year, but it can be argued the defense only lost two of them. Against the Oakland Raiders in Week 3 (34-31) and the Tennessee Titans in Week 6 (26-23), the Steelers' defense surrendered a total of 23 points in the fourth quarter blowing leads of 10 and seven points, respectively . The fault for two of the remaining three losses (Baltimore and Cleveland) can be laid directly at the feet of the offense, and by offshoot, offensive coordinator Todd Haley and head coach Mike Tomlin.
The Week 1 loss to the Broncos was jointly attributed to both units of the Steelers; Ben Roethlisberger threw an interception returned for a touchdown late in the game and the offense in general didn't produce many points (19 total, only six in the fourth quarter) while the defense failed to hit, pressure or otherwise even bother Broncos QB Peyton Manning throughout the game. This game was the quintessential Troy, and it was something to tell your grandkids, watching a game of chicken between two future Hall of Fame players.
Polamalu was injured in the Denver game, and did not play again until Week 5 against the Philadelphia Eagles, where he re-injured himself in the first quarter, and hasn't returned. With defensive meltdowns against the Raiders and Titans highlighting Polamalu's absence, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau was forced to re-work the defensive secondary, both in terms of players as well as scheme.
SS Will Allen replaced ineffective substitute SS Ryan Mundy starting in Week 6, and the pressure on CBs Ike Taylor and Keenan Lewis to cover the hole left by Polamalu was relieved by changing the defensive scheme the secondary continues to employ now.
From the second quarter of the Cincinnati Bengals game where the Steelers defense gave up just seven points (17 total), through the travesty that was the Browns game, the Future-Is-Now version of the Steelers defense has allowed just 15.8 points per game with only the New York Giants scoring as much as two touchdowns in any given quarter, and only six points in the fourth quarter, over six games.
What happens when No. 43 returns to the field? Will the Steelers continue to employ this dominating defensive strategy? Given his recent attendance record, questions will remain regarding Polamalu's effectiveness and durability. Yes, you don't keep a player of his caliber off the field, but do you force every other player who has been performing so well in a scheme that doesn't depend on Polamalu's athleticism to suddenly have to start learning how to play differently, just so Troy can be Troy?
This isn't to suggest that Polamalu is going to undergo the Wally Pipp Experience; there isn't a player on the Steelers roster that comes anywhere close to what Polamalu can do on the field. There are very few, if any, players in the entire NFL (past or present) who can lock down a deep threat one play, then leap over the LOS at the snap of the ball and practically disrupt its passage from center to quarterback on the next, and disguise his intention to do either so well.
But football is the consummate team sport. One player blows an assignment and the effort of all 11 players can be wasted. One player doesn't quite have what it takes, as the Steelers found out with Mundy, and the other 10 players have to compromise their performance to cover for his lacking.
LeBeau has proven more than once this season that his time has not passed; that he is more than just "relevant" in defending today's NFL style of offense. The one criticism of the Steelers' defensive personnel process, holding onto aging veterans too long, certainly won't be found true simply by Troy Polamalu resuming his position in the secondary. But it could be lent credence if suddenly the Steelers start playing defense like it was 2010 all over again, invalidating the admirable progress young players such as Lewis, CB Cortez Allen and SS Will Allen have made and the adjustments the Steeler defense has been forced to make during the extended periods of recuperation for this HOF bound player.
In all likelihood however, the ever-scheming LeBeau will come up with a hybrid plan; one which keeps the current high performing defensive players on the field, while inserting Polamalu as the game changing wild card that he is. LeBeau will turn him loose in such ways as to preserve the defensive domination the Steelers have been known for, and appear able to continue once Troy Polamalu hangs up his cleats for the final time.