PITTSBURGH -- If Troy Polamalu retires after this past season, it's a good bet that Pittsburgh Steelers fans won't see him again until he's being presented for enshrinement into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.
Safety Shamarko Thomas, generally believed to be Polamalu's heir apparent, has not been able to step into his spot just yet. But Thomas believed that the best was yet to come.
"You know, Troy's a humble man, a great man, and I'm just happy and blessed to be in this situation that I'm in,'' Thomas said. "I don't know if I'm here to take over for him, but that's the way it goes in the NFL. And I'm just glad to have Troy help me be a better player no matter what happens.''
If Polamalu doesn't hang it up, like many believe, maybe he could take Thomas west with him to train during the offseason. Thomas needs something, because his current regimen hasn't kept him from being injured. Thomas has missed seven games in the two seasons since the Steelers drafted him in the fourth round in 2013, including five this year, and his play has suffered.
"Yeah, I'd like to do that,'' Thomas said. "He's definitely my mentor, and I'd like to go train with him anytime. First of all, he taught me how to be a man. You generally come into this game as a young man, like I did, and he taught me how to grow up as a man and mature, be closer to my family and be closer to God and just be focused.''
No matter who takes over for Polamalu, Thomas or veteran Will Allen or someone else, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau believed it would be a difficult transition.
"Well, there's only one Troy Polamalu,'' LeBeau said. "But Will Allen is a very good football player. He had a great game (against the Bengals). (It) was one of his better games he's had for us, but he always plays well. I think with both (of them) in there we have some good safeties.''
Polamalu wasn't prepared to discuss his future after the loss to the Ravens, and he wasn't available for comment while the Steelers cleaned out their lockers. But he offered some assessments of the team now and in the future.
"This team really grew throughout the season,'' Polamalu said. "Not just in the secondary, but the whole team. Sometimes you just have to pay your dues. The Super Bowl teams I've been a part of, it wasn't the first time we made the playoffs that we won the Super Bowl.
"We went to the AFC championship game and lost. People have different reactions to those types of adversities, and our team grew from that. We had a bad season in 2007, and then in 2008 we came back and won a Super Bowl. Not to say that this is the same group of guys, but this is a hard lesson for us to learn from and hopefully grow from.''
And Polamalu believed that no matter which players return for next season, the core group of young players is solid.
"The way the team progressed and each position grew,'' Polamalu said. "The way the secondary grew, the defensive line came together and the youth and experience we are going to have on the line and at linebacker. Our offensive line has a lot of great young talent.''
Thomas enthusiastically agreed with his mentor.
"We'll definitely be more comfortable with our roles here next year,'' Thomas said. "Like Coach Tomlin said, a lot of us young guys never were in a playoff game before, so that was a big help to get us ready for the future. It definitely brought us closer and made us hungrier for more playoff games. So, it's definitely a big offseason, but not just for me.
"We all have to build off what we can take from this last game that we lost against the Ravens. It really hurt, so we need to take all the good things and move forward with them and learn from the bad things we did. I think that's just going to make us all hungry to strive for more success.''
Thomas made five special teams tackles this season and had one forced fumble, but never made an impact in the Steelers base defense.