Troy Polamalu may be the most popular player at Steelers training camp. The Pro Bowl safety gets more hopeful "We Love You!" shouts than anybody else. He stays long after practice to sign just about every autograph for just about every fan who lingers on the grassy hills here at St. Vincent College. His signature cascading hairstyle makes him easy to spot, his soft-spoken earnestness makes him easy to like.
And the fans of the Steelers like him very much.
So do Pittsburgh's other players, who are more than a little bit happy to have him back from the knee injury that cost him 11 of their 16 games last year.
"It's like having our quarterback back," Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward said. "Troy's a special player. Probably one of the best players in this league. Every game he's on the field, I tell him I need him to be special. And when he's special, he gives us a chance to win a lot of ballgames."
When he was absent in 2009, it definitely increased the Steelers' chances of losing ballgames. In the five games in which Polamalu played, Pittsburgh was 4-1 and allowed an average of 13.8 points per game. In the 11 he missed, they were 5-6 and allowed an average of 23.2.
"I'm not going to sit here and say I'm going to come back and make 10 points' difference," Polamalu said. "I'm just glad I feel healthy enough to be out here practicing, and so far, so good."
Polamalu said his goal was to be healthy enough to participate in training camp. He's cautious with predictions and said he hopes to be 100 percent in time for the season, but that he can't be certain until he starts seeing some game action. But the Steelers are hanging a lot of their 2010 hopes on the idea that their do-it-all safety will be back where they need him to be, creating all kinds of havoc in the secondary.
"The way he plays, he's not playing a normal safety position like everybody else plays it," linebacker James Harrison said. "There may be 32 safeties out there playing in the NFL, but there's not one of them that's going to play like Troy."
What makes Polamalu so tough to replace are the non-quantifiable qualities that makes him so good. He takes what Harrison calls "calculated risks," and he gets away with them because of his intelligence and his athleticism. He has a sense for which way the play will run, where the ball is going to be, which is what makes it appear at times as if there's more than one of him on the field. Without him in the lineup, the Steelers were able to plug in safeties they felt were good NFL players, but none of them brought what Polamalu brings to the game.
"He allows you to open up the playbook," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "When you have Troy back there, and you're kind of counting on him to make plays the way he does, it allows you to pull guys from one place or the other and do some more creative things than you're able to do with just a normal, good NFL safety playing in that same spot. It's nothing against anybody else here or anywhere else. Troy's just different."
So they're happy to have him back at practice. It's hard to say they're taking it easy with him, since the Steelers don't do much hard hitting in their practices anyway. He's going through the individual and team drills, getting his timing down like everybody else, getting into what he describes as "football shape."
"I was out for a while, so it feels good to be back in there," Polamalu said. "But at the same time, you miss that kind of time, it's going to affect you. I have some work to do to get back to where I want to be."
He's not the only big addition the Steelers plan to make from within. They're also getting back defensive end Aaron Smith, who missed 11 games last year with a torn rotator cuff.
"Aaron Smith means a great deal, both for our run support and our pass rush," Harrison said. "If you're running the ball, you need two people to block him. And when you have two people blocking Aaron, that means one of us is going to be free to do damage. So both of those guys, Troy and Aaron, are big if they can come back all the way."
This time last year, the Steelers were Super Bowl champs with reasonable hopes for a title defense. This year, they're a team that finished in third place in the AFC North and watched the two teams ahead of them -- Cincinnati and Baltimore -- add multiple pieces to improve their offenses.
The Steelers didn't do that. They traded Santonio Holmes and elevated Mike Wallace to the No. 2 receiver spot opposite Ward. They'll play at least the first four games of the season, and possibly the first six, without suspended starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. They're counting on third-year running back Rashard Mendenhall to carry a full-season load behind an offensive line that was questionable before it lost tackle Willie Colon to a season-ending injury.
Yeah, there's a pretty good chance the Steelers will struggle to score this year. Which means it'll be up to the star-studded defense to keep points off the board. And while Harrison and James Farrior and Casey Hampton and Lamarr Woodley are all monsters in their own right, they'll all be better if Polamalu and Smith are back, healthy and playing the way they played two years ago.
"We were playing without their personal capabilities," Harrison said. "We had other guys who were capable to stand in, but it wasn't those two guys, and we missed them. It made a difference."