Troy Polamalu is practically as well known for those slightly awkward Head and Shoulders commercials as his play on the field this season. The All-Pro safety has been plagued all season by knee injuries, and to find out what his presence has meant for the Steelers, look no further than their record.
With Polamalu intercepting a pass in the opener, the Steelers beat Tennessee. But he hurt the ACL in his left knee in that game, and in his five-game absence, Pittsburgh went 2-2. He returned to start four games, with Pittsburgh going 3-1. He hurt the PCL in his left knee in that loss to Cincinnati, and the Steelers haven't won since.
"You know, we don't use excuses," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said in a conference call with Packers beat reporters on Wednesday. "The reality is that Troy is a unique player, he has special talents, we acknowledge that. And you lose something when he's not in the lineup. But we've won in the past without him, injuries are a realistic part of this game, and we're fully capable of playing winning football without him. And we haven't done that. And we accept responsibility for it. He is a significant player, he's a unique player, but I truly believe we're still capable of playing winning football even when he's not in the lineup."
The Steelers won all three games in which Polamalu had an interception. In their current five-game losing streak, Pittsburgh lost twice in overtime and once on a last-second touchdown pass. In the eight games without Polamalu, the Steelers have allowed 21.9 points per game. In the five games with him, they allowed only 13.8 points per game.
"Obviously, he's a player that jumps out at you in the film, when you throw their tape on and you see him in a cut-up or you watch a game that he's playing in," Packers offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said on Thursday. "You know, I remember getting ready with Iowa to play (Polamalu and USC) in a bowl game and watching him on tape way back then, and he's a guy that you notice on film, there's no question about it. But they have a lot of good players and he's one of them. But he's certainly a quality player."
Barnett going full speed
Nick Barnett was a full participant at practice, one day sooner than expected.
Barnett's been battling swelling in his surgically reconstructed right knee following the last two games. Coach Mike McCarthy called that "absolutely" typical for being about 13 months removed from surgery. Despite being held out of last Wednesday's practice and being a full participant only last Friday, Barnett had six tackles — including one for a loss — against the Bears.
Asked if the team would be having to monitor Barnett's knee for the rest of the season, McCarthy said: "Can't answer that. He's coming off of major knee surgery, and he had some swelling in there. Just being smart with it. He feels fine. Sometimes it takes a little longer to recover. I think that's kind of the situation he's in right now."
Barnett tore the ACL in his right knee on Nov. 9, 2008, at Minnesota and had surgery 11 days later. After being restricted during the first three games, Barnett has posted a team-high 97 tackles with three sacks.
"I think Nick Barnett is playing very well coming off the injury," McCarthy said. "But anytime you have a major joint injury, particularly with the ACL, the recovery time is sometimes longer coming off of a football game. That's really the issue that Nick is in right now. We're seeing it a little bit also with Mark Tauscher. This I think is a very normal process that players go through coming back from that type of injury."
Packers injury report
Out — LB Jeremy Thompson (neck). Did not participate — CB Brandon Underwood (hip); CB Charles Woodson (shoulder/not injury related). Limited participation — DE Johnny Jolly (knee); NT Ryan Pickett (hamstring).
Woodson missed practice with a "personal matter," McCarthy said.
Meanwhile, this was Pickett's first practice since pulling a hamstring in the fourth quarter against Baltimore.
"I felt pretty good. It's a hamstring, so it's kind of tricky," Pickett said. "That's my goal (is to play Sunday). Go out (Friday), try to practice and see how it feels, and hopefully I feel good (Friday)."
Steelers injury report
Ward sat out Wednesday's practice but was back at full speed on Thursday.
— In case you haven't noticed, we have Fox Sports videos on our home page. There are two fresh ones posted today, including a Steelers-Packers preview.
— Earlier this week, the Packers released receiver Biren Ealy and promoted receiver Patrick Williams from the practice squad.
"He's kind of, I don't know, I like to use the word fluid or smooth," offensive coordinator Joe Philbin said. "He's kind of a pretty good route runner, I think. He's got that nice size, that height and that range and length that you like in a receiver. I think probably, ideally, as he develops, you'd like to see him get bigger and stronger as he goes. But I think he's got kind of those combinations. He's pretty good out of the break, he doesn't waste a lot of time at the top of the route, gets pretty good separation, he's got that size that you can envision him being a productive player with."
— The Packers have held 10 teams to less than 90 rushing yards. Only the Super Bowl XXXI championship team, which held 11 foes to less than 90 yards, have done that more often since 1933. Meanwhile, the Packers have held six consecutive opponents to less than 300 total yards. The last time Green Bay accomplished that feat was in 1974, when it turned the trick seven consecutive times.
— Sunday's game matches two December juggernauts. Since 2000, the Packers are 32-12 in December and January and Pittsburgh is 32-13. Only New England (35-8) has been better.
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Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/packerreport and Facebook under Bill Huber.