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Shamarko Thomas, playing time and the future of the Steelers' strong safety position

How much can we read into the second-year player's lack of defensive snaps in 2014?

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Admission time: I have been high on the prospects for Shamarko Thomas as the designated Heir to the Hair, and was quite disappointed at the suggestion that after Troy got hurt Will Allen - an excellent player but still a backup - was able to wrest snaps away from the supposed man of the future. Indeed, it got me worried enough to spare a few curses at the lack of good safety prospects in the upcoming draft

The recent Fanshot of Shamarko Thomas' fancy footwork got me curious enough to go back and examine the question more thoroughly. I don't know about you, but that kind of display was enough to remind me why I was so high on Thomas going in to last year. So I asked myself this question: Based on what we (can) know, did Mike Tomlin keep Shamarko Thomas out of the base defense because Thomas has failed to mature, or was there some other reason?

I had to acknowledge that Thomas had "failed" at one level simply by his failure to beat out the fading Troy Polamalu. On the other hand, I just can't find it in me to call that a genuine "failure." Troy is... Well, he's Troy Polamalu, a legend who actually belongs in the Greatest Of All Time debate. Father Time catches up with everybody in the end. I know that. But if a player like Troy Polamalu is (a) healthy enough to play and (b) has enough left in the tank to still be on the team, then you play him. Period. Especially when you have a new Free Safety who needs hand-holding when it comes to knowing the last minute adjustments, and is also hampered by a nagging groin problem.

But Troy wasn't always healthy, right? And that is what we're upset about. Looking back, however, it turns out that Troy's and Shamarko's injuries overlapped for most of the season.

* Troy missed four (4) weeks last year: #'s 10, 11, 16 & 17.

* Thomas missed five (5) weeks last year: #'s 6, 7, 8, 10, and 11.

Thus the only weeks when Troy was out and Will Allen "beat out" Headache for playing time were the final two, #'s 16 and 17 - which just happened to be the final games of the season, when the team was battling for a playoff berth and a home game. Looking back, that actually makes a pretty big difference.

We have to remember that Will Allen had a number of things going in his favor, including what I'll call the "Mitchell Factor." Mike Mitchell had been a weak link all year. In the beginning his learning curve required Troy to be there with him, and later on he was dealing with a nagging groin injury of the kind that limits your make-up speed; a/k/a your margin of error. In addition, Mitchell had suffered from communication lapses for much of the season.

Will Allen had played with Mitchell in Weeks 10 and 11, when both Thomas and Troy were out. In other words, the Mitchell Factor strongly favored Allen over Thomas because playing the veteran could improve the Free Safety spot in addition to the actual duties being held down at Strong Safety.

In addition, we know that Tomlin favors veterans when crunch time hits. And we can't disagree with him on that because the margins for "newbie error" are that much tighter as the year goes on. Yes, the noble Headache was a 2nd year player and not a rookie. But the bottom line remains: Allen has a lot more experience, and that experience matters more during the crunch time part of the season.

The arguments for playing Thomas basically came down to his athletic edge. Thomas has a higher ceiling than Will Allen, and won't ever get to that ceiling if he doesn't get some playing time. But was that a risk worth taking so late in the season and in such a critical game?

When I put myself into Tomlin's shoes it turned out to be a very, very close decision. In the end... I would probably have played Will Allen. It shocks me to say it because I am a self-avowed fan of the younger guy, but I have to agree this was just not the time to take that plunge. The tiebreaker was this:

Given the dead-heat tie described above, I asked myself this question: "Are the potential benefits from Thomas' playmaking abilities worth the risks that come from his inexperience as a Strong Safety and his inability to be a safety blanket for Mitchell's play at Free Safety?" If I was relying on my defense to create opportunities, the answer would be yes, but that wasn't the case for the 2014 Steelers. By week 16 it was clear that this particular team was going to live and die with the success of the offense. The defense had to play, well, defensively: Just don't lose the game before the offense can win it. And that reality was enough to break the tie in favor of Will Allen, even for an avowed Shamarko Thomas supporter.

Try the exercise yourself and see where you come out. If you're anything like me you'll be both surprised at the result, and encouraged about the future.