Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers hoping to get back up in 2013

LATROBE, Pa. -- When Troy Polamalu was still an emerging player in the NFL, Jerome Bettis, his veteran Pittsburgh Steelers teammate, gave the safety a bit of advice. Make sure the injuries you suffer during the season, Bettis warned, are completely erased in the offseason.

Polamalu was young then, and the body that has allowed him to do extraordinary things on a football field was still resilient. In the quiet offseason days of almost a decade ago, after he had recovered from the fatigue brought on by the season, Polamalu would not have given a second thought to the prospect of injuries recurring months after they seemed to have healed.

"But when you start putting on the load of camp -- the helmet, the pads, the continuous grind of camp -- that's when these injuries come back, and last year was a testament to that," Polamalu said after a recent practice, with the Steelers preparing for Monday night's matchup against the Washington Redskins in their second preseason contest.

In 2012, Polamalu aggravated a right calf injury just days before the regular-season opener, and he admits now that he never fully recovered. His calves have bothered him for three or four years, maybe most significantly in the overtime playoff loss to the Denver Broncos that ended Pittsburgh's 2011 campaign. What made the calf injury even more frustrating -- beyond the nine games missed and the 34 tackles last season, the second-lowest total in his career; beyond watching mostly from the sidelines as the Steelers slipped to 8-8 and uncharacteristically surrendered fourth-quarter leads to the likes of the Oakland Raiders and Tennessee Titans -- was that Polamalu thought it was preventable.

"You can't avoid people falling on your legs and tearing ligaments in your knee, or tearing an Achilles, but last year was a tissue issue," he said. "For sure, it was annoying. You look back, in retrospect, at things you could have done better, as far as offseason is concerned."

So Polamalu has tried to do better. He found a new physical therapist, and they spent hours each day during the offseason -- he is still working twice a day during training camp -- attempting to break up the knots of scar tissue that have formed in his calves. In what might be best described as an extremely intensive and not-at-all-relaxing massage, the therapist kneads the clumps of hardened tissue that have formed around the small tears in Polamalu's muscle. The hope is that, as Polamalu endures the strain of the season, his calves will not tighten up again.

"You get used to the pain," Polamalu said. "People have to do it with knee injuries. This is what every football player goes through when they get a massage."

At 32, Polamalu is returning to a defense that finished sixth in points allowed and first in yards allowed in 2012 -- stellar numbers by any measure -- and yet still carries with it a whiff of disappointment. The Steelers had just 37 sacks, 10 interceptions and 15 fumble recoveries. And while defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said that a glance at the yardage and points totals indicates the Steelers "are not on life support," the manner in which they lost games -- particularly when they blew leads -- resonates.

Although the 75-year-old LeBeau's fountain-of-youth tenure means the Steelers defense is never fully in transition, this year's version will feature different faces. Gone are James Harrison and Casey Hampton. So LeBeau has gone into his laboratory to tinker with the defense. Traditionally, this D has relied on the linebackers to rack up sacks, with the defensive ends ordered to push the pocket. Now, LeBeau's asking the ends to get on the edge more often.

Defensive end Brett Keisel is delighted with the changes: "Getting to the quarterback is a fun thing to do." But he also remembers how steady LeBeau was last year, when the frustration among players was building. In defensive meetings, Keisel said, LeBeau kept saying the turnovers eventually would come, thanks to the team's aggressive, hard-hitting style.

"Maybe this is the year they come in bunches," Keisel said.

LeBeau remains very confident that the drop in turnovers was a statistical blip, and he emphasized that the Steelers are not undergoing a significant makeover in response to last year's results.

"The concepts are not going to change, but the way they get it done will always be a little different," LeBeau said. "A lot of it is me, what I call; some of that is not going to change. Whenever I see us getting a real strong tendency, I'm going to break that. It's always going to be a different book cover from a different artist, but when you open it up and read it, you're going to get the same, 'Boy meets girl, boy gets girl.' It's just the same old story."

Still, LeBeau concedes that Polamalu's return opens up his play calling, thanks to the veteran's rare ability to play so many defensive roles, from blitzing to covering a receiver to playing deep safety. LeBeau asks Polamalu to do things he would not feel comfortable asking others to do.

It is clear that the mental lift Polamalu's presence brings to the defense is nearly as significant as the physical one. Keisel said Polamalu still makes plays that cause even his teammates to stop and say, "Wow."

"You feel better about your defense, and also, teams fear you a little more when you have such an impact player," said safety Ryan Clark, Polamalu's best friend on the team. "It's one thing to see him in shape and healthy and being able to practice every day and at full speed. It's something I don't know if he's done it in camp the last two years, dealing with those injuries."

Polamalu reported to camp looking trimmer and fitter than last year. In the Steelers' first preseason game against the New York Giants, he was noticeably active, running around the field as if willing himself into regular-season form. With a laugh, Polamalu acknowledged that he might have looked that way because it had been so long since anybody had seen him play at full strength. Following the preseason opener, in the Steelers' physical week of practice -- they are one of the decreasing number of teams that still regularly have live tackling in practice -- Polamalu was a full participant, running and hitting with abandon.

Coach Mike Tomlin joked, after giving Polamalu a day off earlier in camp, that the veteran had a "contusion of the birth certificate." But the playfulness of Tomlin's jab cannot obscure the reality. Polamalu has missed 22 games in the last four seasons; over the past seven campaigns, he's played all 16 games just twice. Chronic injuries are often an indicator that a player's body is irretrievably breaking down.

Still, the Steelers also remember this: Polamalu was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 -- a season in which he played with a lingering Achilles injury.

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Polamalu has always been one of the game's most thoughtful -- if reticent -- participants. As his child tugged on his arm so that they could play after the Steelers' Family Night practice, he reflected on what it was like to watch much of last year from the sideline as the season slipped away.

"It's tough watching any game," he said. "But it's a great spiritual learning process for me. It's very humbling. But it also gives me a sense of appreciation for what I do have when I am healthy."

It has been a while since he has felt this healthy. Polamalu figures that questions about whether he can ever again be the player he was are a byproduct of spending so many years in the NFL. But even he laces his hopefulness about the new physical therapy with some caution.

"I felt pretty good last preseason, too," he said. "I am feeling healthy as we stand here today."

Just then, one of Polamalu's sons tried to pull him away, and Polamalu offered him guidance that could resonate through his own season.

"Be patient," he told the boy.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter @judybattista.

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