PITTSBURGH — The strands of gray in Troy Polamalu’s hair are still there. So are the hints of salt in his still mostly pepper beard.
Yet there is something decidedly youthful about the way the Pittsburgh Steelers safety is playing of late, a return to the hell-bent style that has become his calling card during an 11-year career that may be destined for the Hall of Fame.
“This is his time, November, December football,” Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. “That’s key for us.”
Certainly looks like it.
After looking a step — or maybe two — slow at times during Pittsburgh’s miserable 2-6 first half of the season, Polamalu is thriving during a three-game winning streak that has pushed the Steelers back into the thick of the playoff race.
During a 27-11 dismantling of Cleveland last week, Polamalu had a sack and forced two fumbles in a vintage performance that looked like something straight out of 2009.
“He’s a freak,” rookie Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas said. “But really, he’s been like that the whole time. It’s just that now things are happening. He’s settling in and making plays.”
The ever-polite Polamalu shrugs off the notion of a midseason rebirth and points instead to the growth process of a defense in the midst of a youth movement. The 32-year-old is now one of the elder statesmen in a group that started two rookies at linebacker and saw little-used reserve nose tackle Al Woods play extensively against the Browns.
All that roster shuffling has taken its toll in the meeting rooms and on the field. The days when Polamalu could spend the majority of the offseason in California, then show up for training camp, exchange handshakes and pull on his jersey ready to create his own unique brand of chaos are gone.
“Coach (Dick) LeBeau says ‘There’s a lot of new faces in there, you’ve got to get used to each other,’” Polamalu said. “I think (before) I could just plug and go. I think we’re also getting a feel for each other.”
A feel that includes Polamalu returning to his roots. He spent the early portion of his career serving as a de facto linebacker in Pittsburgh’s dime defense. He ceded that role to Larry Foote in recent years. Foote’s season-ending triceps injury in the opener against Tennessee forced Polamalu back into his old job in passing situations.
The adjustment period was bumpy, and more than a bit public. He has looked overmatched at times against tight ends and wide receivers in pass coverage, particularly in a 55-31 whipping by the Patriots three weeks ago that featured highlight after highlight of Polamalu’s curly mane futilely chasing New England players to the end zone,
It’s something he doesn’t shy away from. When asked how he’s closed the “inch or two” gap between himself and the guys he’s tasked with chasing, Polamalu laughs and interjects “it was a little farther than an inch or two.”
Maybe, but whatever room Polamalu was allowing before has all but disappeared. There he was against the Browns, crashing into running back Chris Ogbonnaya and jarring the ball loose late in the first half to set up a field goal. There he was smashing into quarterback Brandon Weeden in the third quarter to end any real hope Cleveland might have had of rallying.
When Baltimore coach John Harbaugh talks about Pittsburgh’s resurgent defense, it sounds like something that might have escaped his mouth three years ago.
“They are flying around,” he said. “Troy Polamalu is a big factor. They are a great defense.”
It’s a defense that is finally playing like it. Save for a 27-point outburst in the second quarter by Detroit two weeks ago, the Steelers have allowed just two garbage-time touchdowns over their last 14 quarters of play.
It’s a trend Pittsburgh needs to continue. A victory over the Ravens (5-6) on Thursday night would set up the Steelers for a favorable December schedule that includes three home games.
Polamalu refuses to look that far ahead, though he’s as healthy as he’s been at this time of year. That’s encouraging news after he missed most of the 2012 season with a calf injury. He’s already hinted at returning in 2014 while admitting the lure of retirement grows with each passing year.
That day will come, just not yet. At the moment he’s too busy trying to play an integral part in a surge that looked impossible only a few weeks ago.
“You know, he hasn’t changed,” Thomas said. “The way he prepares, diagnoses plays and takes chances and trusts his instincts. That’s just Troy.”