No one is questioning the efficacy of Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He isn't there to be questioned, but his health is.
When Polamalu is healthy, he's among the best in the game, and has been for the past decade. The Steelers opponents in Week 1, the Tennessee Titans, can attest to that. Two of Polamalu's best highlights came against them, with a backfoot leaping interception of a Kerry Collins pass in Week 1 of the 2009 season, and a Death From Above leap over the line of scrimmage at the snap, landing on Collins, in Week 2 of 2010.
HIs battery mate, the steady, technically supreme Ryan Clark, doesn't have a string of highlights nearly as long as Polamalu's, but he takes his job as a backside defender - as in, he covers the Steelers' defensive backside - seriously. Leading the team in tackles over the last two years, Clark provides some of the best run support from the safety position in the league.
While Polamalu is like no other safety in league history, the pairing of himself and Clark represents outstanding production the Steelers have gotten from the safety position over the last six seasons.
Odds aren't good it will last six more.
The Steelers selected Syracuse S Shamarko Thomas in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft. The team spent a year letting undrafted free agent Robert Golden marinate as Polamalu battled injuries in 2012. While Golden is no more Polamalu than anyone is, the idea of the younger duo being something of a replacement for the best Steelers safety combination in 40 years is palatable.
Thomas is fast and aggressive, and an inch shorter than Polamalu. Golden looks to be a wink at the future of the position; a hybrid defensive back, he played all four secondary positions in college.
Gone are other elder statesmen, Ryan Mundy (Giants) and Will Allen (Cowboys). Backing up Clark and Polamalu will likely be Thomas and Golden, with incumbent DaMon Cromartie-Smith giving chase for a position budding with undrafted and mid-round talent.
This year's Clark and Polamalu could very easily be Thomas and Golden. Polamalu will be 33 next season, and his lucrative contract may prove too pricy - depending on how he holds up this season. If he struggles to stay on the field as he did last year, the cap-conscious Steelers may have to do the unthinkable - replace the legend.
At the same time, Polamalu could very well simply stay healthy, and return to his Defensive Player of the Year form from two seasons ago.
Which is more likely? That's an important question in Pittsburgh this season. The Steelers likely will want to prove their hedged bet with Thomas and/or Golden will eventually pay dividends (as they may have thought it would with Mundy when he was drafted in the sixth round in 2008.
Polamalu has outlasted any other safety the team has brought in, with the exception of Clark. The elder of the two safeties has played at a high level in terms of run support and big play prevention - the keys to a deep safety in Dick LeBeau's defense. Trading position designation for impeccable angles to the ball and the man carrying it, Clark has lasted longer than many felt he would.
Can he make it through one more year before the younger generation passes him by?
This could be a position where the Steelers make a move to a starter - i.e. Clark. It would be a bold move, but if Thomas or Golden could replace him - not a ridiculous notion - they could show Clark the door.
Perhaps Polamalu's health isn't the only intriguing aspect of this position group.
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