Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu–Mr. Nice and Passive, Mr. Head and Shoulders, the guy with the soft voice and long, luxurious hair—made news on Thursday during his team’s 31-21 loss in Philadelphia.
But the news wasn’t for Polamalu’s almost always impressive play on the field; the reason Polamalu became a central figure in the sports pages in the days that followed was because of a rare demonstrative and emotional outburst directed at his defensive colleagues for their parts in a very poor effort that saw the unit surrender 482 total yards and four touchdowns.
In fairness to Pittsburgh’s defense, the Eagles have one of the most potent and hard-to-stop offenses in the league these days—it’s pretty rare for them to be held under the 31 points they recorded last Thursday—but that doesn’t mean a stern talking to wasn’t in order.
After all, it’s not like Dick LeBeau’s unit can rest on its laurels any longer, not after finishing 13th in total yards a year ago, and not after the past three seasons when splash plays were more the exception and not the rule.
Former defensive stalwarts like James Harrison, Aaron Smith, James Farrior, Ryan Clark, Casey Hampton and LaMarr Woodley no longer comprise the core that Polamalu was once a part of (maybe the very center of that core).
If the Steelers are going to be good again on defense, they’re going to be relying on youngsters to learn their collective crafts and learn them fast.
After three preseason games, it doesn’t appear that fast-learning is on the menu. In addition to Thursday’s poor performance, the top unit also surrendered a 73 yard touchdown run to Giants running back Rashad Jennings in the first preseason game, and the defense as a whole yielded 358 total yards to a fairly pedestrian Buffalo offense in the second preseason game.
It’s hard to say who the emotional and vocal leaders of Pittsburgh’s defense are these days. Yes, former linebacker Joey Porter is back as an assistant coach, and he’s reportedly added some fire to the mix and would probably don his old pads and helmet again if he could. But even though he’s a legend, do you think Porter has the clout in that locker room at this point to make much of an impact?
You’ll never see Polamalu leading a “Who Ride? We Ride!” chant similar to what Porter used to do back when he was the emotional leader of the defense as a player, but sometimes, it’s not about how a message is delivered, it’s about who is delivering the message.
Chuck Noll, the Steelers legendary former head coach who passed away in June, wasn’t known for the same fiery personality that Bill Cowher, his successor, displayed during his time on the sidelines.
Noll didn’t jump around much, and his pregame speeches were generally mundane and simply a reminder to his players that if they prepared properly during the week, it should manifest itself over the course of the game.
But there was one time when Noll, obviously a coach who had the ear of his team regardless of his less than intense demeanor, decided to deliver a speech the week before the 1974 AFC Championship Game in Oakland and remind his team (who was considered almost an afterthought heading into the postseason) that it was the best one in the NFL.
Four decades after this speech, it still resonates with Noll’s former players, who often recite it word-for-word and credit it as the fuel they needed to defeat the Raiders and win the franchise’s first Super Bowl two weeks later.
Obviously, unlike the defense that Polamalu was yelling at the other night, Noll already had the horses on his roster to get the job done (speech or no speech), but the Emperor was no dummy, and he knew right when to pull the emotional lever.
Polamalu’s antics might not mean a hill of beans if his defensive teammates aren’t collectively ready to get the job done. But of all the people who could have had an emotional outburst, No. 43 was probably the best man for the job.