Sunday, December 06, 2009

#136: All But Over

---Planning Ahead (to 2010)---

One thing has become very apparent in the last four weeks: safety Troy Polamalu is the Pittsburgh Steelers' Most Valuable Player.

Yes, there is a very strong case to have quarterback Ben Roethlisberger bear that mantle, and while it's highly unlikely that the Steelers would have won either Super Bowl in the 2000s without him, Big Ben bows slightly to the Unstoppable Hair.

Following the Steelers' inexcusable 27-24 loss to the Oakland Raiders, it has become apparent that Troy Polamalu is the "C" when it comes down to either -losing- games, or -closing- them.

It's hard for Steeler fans, let alone NFL fans, to remember the Black and Gold losing so many 4th quarter leads, but, during the team's four-game slide, they've managed to surrender them a total of five times (once in Kansas City, once in Baltimore, and three times at home against Oakland), and they were tied with Cincinnati in the 4th during their second match-up.

Polamalu watched them all evaporate from the Steeler sideline.

He is apparently the only one in the secondary who truly understands how to wrap up a ball carrier while tackling him, instead of simply acting like an appendageless missile.

He is apparently the only one whose hands are made of something resembling "soft".

And he is apparently the only member of the Steelers' defensive backfield who has the respect of opposing quarterback and offensive coordinator alike.

As such, it is clear that Head Coach Mike Tomlin must keep Polamalu out for the remainder of the season so that he can fully heal from his recurring injury, and start looking ahead to a 2010 rebound.

The only way anyone should suggest playing Polamalu again this year is if the Steelers manage to squeak by the inept Cleveland Browns next week, and the following outcomes also ALL occur by the time the Green Bay Packers come to Heinz Field in two weeks:

- Baltimore loses to either Green Bay or Detroit

- Carolina beats New England

- Miami beats Jacksonville

- Indianapolis beats Denver

- Tampa Bay beats the New York Jets

That is how far down the pecking order the Steelers have fallen in terms of claiming a Wild Card spot.

There are nine teams ahead of the Steelers overall, five of whom are not division leaders. Of the current Wild Card teams, Denver has a two-game lead on Pittsburgh, and Jacksonville virtually does, as well (by virtue of a two-and-a-half-game conference record lead).

Too much has to break right for the Steelers to even have the opportunity to defend its Super Bowl crown.

I cannot qualify playing a structurally-weakened Troy Polamalu, a player who can obviously help the Steelers long term, in a season that is virtually over.

While some fans see this kind of outlook as "disloyal" or "weak or something negative, it's clear that making sure Polamalu gets fixed up properly is the "smart" and most positive thing for the well-being of the team.

If Polamalu were to be permanently damaged during this quickly-fading campaign, it would be some time before Pittsburgh's defense would be able to regain elite status.

And, maybe, by having a higher draft pick, the Steelers can get that much-needed offensive lineman or defensive back - a player who can step in right away without having to wait for someone to get injured (see Exhibit A: DL Evander "Ziggy" Hood) or a player who is not ready when his chance does present itself (see Exhibit B: DB Joe Burnett).

The Steelers might also consider giving Dennis Dixon some snaps down the stretch, as well. It is evident that Dixon has some talent but needs some game-time experience to improve his reads.

And prevent things like being picked off by rookie defensive linemen.

If the wheels do indeed fall all the way off, Tomlin should consider cutting his losses and playing as many of his bench personnel as possible (especially those that the Steelers want to keep under contract) so that they are better prepared for games in the seasons to come.

White flag? Perhaps.

Right call? Absolutely.


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