The pass sailed over the middle, intended for one of the scout team’s receiver, and, with one flying motion toward the ball, this much became apparent about Troy Polamalu.
“It feels much better,” Polamalu said.
The reference was to the calf Polamalu said he injured in practice the week leading up to the season opener in Denver, an injury that kept the seven-time Pro Bowl safety out of the past two games for the Steelers.
Polamalu, though, returned to practice Tuesday, worked both days with the first-team defense and said he is “optimistic” he will play when the Steelers return from their open week to play the Philadelphia Eagles Oct. 7 at Heinz Field.
Then he added, “As long as coach [Mike] Tomlin is optimistic.”
How could he not be?
Polamalu’s return — both to the lineup and to health — should help a defense that has not made many significant plays and also surrendered game-changing plays in losses in Denver and Oakland.
Against the Raiders, all Polamalu could do was watch from the sideline as his former college housemate, Carson Palmer, brought his team back from deficits of 24-14 and 31-21 in the second half.
“I think if you kind of individually watched a player in the game, you can say everybody [on the defense] played pretty good,” Polamalu said. “But everybody was messing up on the wrong play, one play consistently. Eleven guys weren’t doing their job together on every play. And the way we play defense, whether you get one breakdown in the front [seven] or the secondary, it’s pretty obvious.”
Polamalu said it’s because the Steelers play so much man defense.
“We play so much more man-to-man than anybody else,” Polamalu said. “All those fire zones [blitzes], those are man-to-man. Those aren’t zone coverages.”
The Steelers got caught in one of those fire-zone blitzes in Oakland when Palmer checked out of a pass play on Darren McFadden’s 64-yard touchdown run — the longest run against the Steelers in the Tomlin era.
It was the second long touchdown against the Steelers this season. In the 31-19 loss in Denver, the Broncos scored on a 71-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Demaryius Thomas that turned the game around.
“Any of those close games, a play here, a play there, make a difference,” defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. “We got to be the ones making those plays, which, in the two losses, we weren’t.”
Granted, Ryan Clark’s interception on the first offensive play led to the first touchdown and a 7-0 lead against the Raiders.
But it not only was the only takeaway in the game, it also was the Steelers’ only interception so far this season.
What’s more, LeBeau is also bothered by the defense’s decline in the second half of the losses against the Broncos and Raiders.
In Denver, the Broncos scored 24 of their 31 points, gained 208 of their 334 yards and had 11 of their 20 first downs in the second half. In Oakland, the Raiders scored 20 of their 34 points, gained 216 of their 321 yards and had 16 of their 21 first downs in the second half. What’s more, Palmer converted 7 of 8 third-down chances in the second half.
“I wish I knew the answer to that because that’s something we got to address,” LeBeau said.
“We finished the [New York] Jets game, and it’s our only win. If we finish the other two, we probably would have three wins. We’re all aware of the problem and we’re working on the corrections.”
Having Polamalu back should help.