Over the course of the next week, I'll be listing my Top 5 Disappointments and Surprises for the 2007 Pittsburgh Steelers. When people are asked if they want to hear the good news or the bad news first, they usually opt for the latter so let's start with my #5 dissapointment from this year: Troy Polamalu.
Hard for me to say this, but Troy P. has really struggled the past two years, primarily due to injuries. There has been a disturbing trend with Polamalu's play since 2004, his second year in the league. Take a look first at Troy's impressive 2004 stats:
2004: 16 games, 96 tackles, 1 sack, and 5 INTs.
2005: 16 games, 91 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 INTs
2006: 13 games, 76 tackles, 1 sack, 3 INTs
2007: 11 games, 58 tackles, 0 sacks, 0 INTs
What to make of that? Well, I think it would be unfair to say Polamalu has gotten complacent since signing what was then the largest contract in Steelers history prior to this season, as well as the largest contract ever doled out to a safety. Instead, I think it would be more astute to point out that Polamalu's diminuitive frame is catching up to him. Standing at just 5'10" and 205 pounds, Polamalu is undersized for a safety. When you consider how he plays the game - wrecklessly, with little to no regard for his corporal well being - it's easier to understand why he has missed more time in recent years.
Now, it should be noted that Polamalu effects games in many more ways than simply making tackles. Opposing offenses gameplan around him. As is the case in organized sports at the highest levels, teams don't want the other team's best player(s) to beat you. So you pick on Tyrone Carter, Anthony Smith, or any of our mediocre CBs. In the running game, you go right at him, negating some of his all-world closing speed and the phenomenal angles he takes to the ball. In the Wild Card game against Jacksonville, we fared much better against the run because Troy crowded the line of scrimmage and blew up one or two linemen. It took himself out of contention for a tackle, but it created havoc in the trenches and allowed others to clean up. It's hard to measure that type of contribution, but it would be foolish not to mention it.
Polamalu is still only 26 years old, meaning he has plenty of time to perhaps tweak his game, training, and approach in order to again excel at the highest level like he did in '04 and '05. In my mind, he's going to need to, or else he's going to find himself on the shelf again in the future unable to play.
Here's the deal: although our defense struggled at times in the second half of the season, we're really only a few players and some good fortune health wise from returning to top form in '08 and '09 on the defensive side of the football. That all hinges however on the return of Troy Polamalu to top form. I've seen enough of Tyrone Carter by now to realize he's not worthy of anything but a backup and ST role on this team. Ryan Clark should be back and ready to go in '08, but he's 28 years old and is already flirting with being a step too slow for the fast-paced play in today's NFL. I do think Clark is an above average safety, but he'll need Polamalu playing at a high level to truly find his niche.
This isn't intended to bash or moan about Polamalu. For better or worse, he simply set the bar very high in his first three years in the league. With those incredible performances comes expectations, and for the past two years, Polamalu has fallen drastically short of reaching them.
For that reason, I regrettably list him as the #5 disappointment for the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2007.
Next up: the #5 pleasant surprise in 2007.