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Healthy Returns

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In 2004, with rookie Ben Roethlisberger under center, the Pittsburgh Steelers pushed their way to a 15-1 record largely on the strength of the defense. In 2008, with Pittsburgh’s offense suffering from streaks of average play and inconsistency, the defense stepped up, putting the team on its back en route to the franchise’s sixth Lombardi Trophy.

This season, it’s been more of the same as Pittsburgh’s defense flashed its dominance once again, carrying an offense that featured three different starting quarterbacks to a 5-1 record.

Of course, the final feat occurred after a season which saw the defending champs miss the playoffs in part because the once-proud defense struggled to close out games.

Help arrived for the struggling defense – not from outside, but from within. While Pittsburgh struggled to find its way in a five-game losing streak last season, Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu watched from the sidelines praying for a quick recovery from their injuries.

Polamalu was the first to fall, suffering a sprained MCL in the season opener after a first half of football which saw him make six tackles and a one-handed interception. He would return for a handful of games around mid-season before re-injuring the same knee, ending his season for good.

Smith left a week five win over Detroit with a torn rotator cuff and was placed on the team’s Injured Reserve list in less than a week, officially ending his season as well.

“In those losses, you’ve got two of our best playmakers,” offered defensive coordinator and recently-elected Hall-of-Famer Dick LeBeau. “They play at different levels of the defense- Aaron in front and Troy in back. They both make so many plays that we were definitely going to feel their absence.”

Historically, losing one of those two playmakers hasn’t completely destroyed the Steelers on defense. Pittsburgh is 8-3 when Polamalu is out and 6-2 when Smith is on the sidelines.

When Smith is missing from action, the defense tends to give up an extra dozen yards on the ground, an expected change given Smith’s reputation as one of the league’s top run-stuffers. Polamalu’s absence gives opposing offenses a little more leeway in the passing game to the tune of nearly twenty yards per contest. Additionally, Pittsburgh usually averages an extra half-a-turnover in games Polamalu starts over games where he’s on the bench.

However, nothing compares to the decline the team suffers when both players are hurt at the same time, something that has happened only eight times since the two became starters. In those games, the Steelers boast just three wins against five losses.

Since 2004, Pittsburgh has averaged 272.4 yards against per game in matchups where both Smith and Polamalu are active. In games without both of them, the defense allows 340.3 yards per game, a difference of nearly 70 yards. The team suffers similar declines whether you look at pass defense (188.7 ypg with and 241.0 without), run defense (83.7 ypg with and 124.3 without), and points per game (16.5 with and 24.3 without).

This season, both Smith and Polamalu have been back in the fray, making plays for a Steelers defense that is again among the league’s best and is holding opponents to a league low 13.7 points per game.

“Coaches always want better,” insists Dick LeBeau, most likely referencing the team’s slightly-imperfect 5-1 record after six games. “On the whole, I think that we’ve been competitive and played hard; some games better than others, of course. In terms of total points, which is always a pretty good basis, I think we’ve done a good job.”

That return to health could not have come at a better time, considering the team’s offense was forced to run with its third and fourth-string quarterbacks early in the season. While the offense struggled in the early going, the defense, led by Smith and Polamalu, shined, holding opponents to field goals and forcing a handful of turnovers every game.

Polamalu, who was responsible for two of those turnovers, knows that his good health is a blessing. “It’s still early, but it’s nice to be able to go into every game without having that limp or that insecurity in my knee,” offered the five-time Pro Bowler. “But we’re healthy all around and that’s what we’re all thankful for.”

Unfortunately, all good things do come to an end. After a six-game stretch of good health, Aaron Smith left the field in Miami, Florida with a torn triceps, an injury that has a history of landing players on Injured Reserve.

But in 2010, the loss of Smith may be mitigated by the emergence of another player on Pittsburgh’s defense- a player whose own injury struggles went relatively unnoticed last season, something that tends to happen when a team loses what many people believe to be the NFL’s best safety as well as its best 3-4 defensive end. That player is Lawrence Timmons, who became a regular starter last season despite suffering not one, but two separate high ankle sprains.

“It’s to his credit that he played through it when he could and that he got back there as quickly as he could,” said coach LeBeau. “Even though he may not have been 100%, he certainly was one of our best eleven defenders and we wanted him in there.”

What a difference being healthy makes. Timmons has posted three sacks, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery, and an interception in six games. What is really astonishing is that he’s on pace to finish the season with 165 total tackles. Last year’s leader, San Francisco LB Patrick Willis, posted just 152 tackles.

“LT’s always been the blur,” noted Polamalu, who has seen Timmons blossom into a complete and dangerous playmaker. “He’s been lighting up running backs. He’s a great hitter. He flies to the ball. He epitomizes the attitude that we want on our defense.”

LeBeau isn’t surprised either. “I think Lawrence is right on schedule as a young player,” he added. “His first four or five years should be his major growth period. He should continue grow throughout his career. I think what you’re seeing is just the maturation of a good, young player. We drafted him quite high as a first-round choice. We saw that speed and aggressiveness and I think he’s right on schedule.”

Of course, Timmons suffering dual ankle injuries last season leads to an obvious question. Could Timmons actually be ahead of schedule? Was he capable of this level of play last season had he been healthy?

Regardless of whether he was or wasn’t able to be a dynamic playmaker last season, Timmons approached this offseason with the goal of becoming a better overall player. “I’m just improving in film study– putting more into it,” said Timmons. “The coaches have been doing a great job with me and I’ve just been pushing myself and that’s the big key this year.”

But even Timmons realizes that all the talent in the world is worth nothing if it’s stuck on the sidelines, adding that health is of major importance to both him and the rest of his defense. “That’s the key,” he said. “That’s the key to anybody having a winning season.”

While the defense has been the number one factor in the success of this year’s Pittsburgh Steelers, it will need good health from the veteran Troy Polamalu and the emerging Lawrence Timmons to turn a 5-1 start into a Super Bowl appearance.

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