The Steelers are 6-7 without Polamalu and 14-4 with him the last two seasons, so it's clear which way Tomlin would like to go Sunday. But if the Steelers decide to keep Polamalu on the sideline, backup Ryan Mundy has played well enough the last two weeks to gain the trust of the team.
"Probably our best defensive game was last week," said coordinator Dick LeBeau. "We didn't even have Troy, so you know Mundy had to do OK."
The Steelers allowed the Carolina Panthers only 119 yards last Thursday. It was the fewest yards allowed by the Steelers in over three years (Nov. 5, 2007, 104 yards by Baltimore). The Steelers would've had their first shutout since the 2008 finale against Cleveland had Carolina coach John Fox not opted to kick a 27-yard field goal with 8:29 remaining in a 27-0 game. Mundy led the Steelers with 9 tackles.
"He's not Troy but he's doing his job," said defensive captain James Farrior. "Mundy's going to do his job and that's what we need."
Mundy was drafted by the Steelers in the sixth round in 2008 and spent a few months on the practice squad before making the team the following year as the No. 4 safety behind Tyrone Carter. This season Mundy's moved up to No. 3 ahead of Will Allen.
"He's a smart player," Farrior said. "That's one thing about him, he's always been one of the smartest players on the defense and that's what you need back there at safety."
REDEMPTION VS. CRIBBS
Two weeks ago the Steelers gave up their first kick return for a touchdown this season. It proved to be the difference in the loss to the New York Jets, and is now the difference between having to play for the division title and resting starters in Cleveland.
In their quest for redemption, the Steelers' coverage units need to tackle Josh Cribbs, a Steelers-killer ever since he joined the Browns in 2005.
Of Cribbs's 10 kick returns for scores, 3 were against the Steelers. He's also returned a kickoff 90 yards and a punt 55 yards deep into Steelers territory. Cribbs averages 27.4 per kickoff return and 11.4 per punt return against the Steelers.
"I haven't faced a better return man," said Steelers coverage ace Anthony Madison. "He's their guy and he's as dangerous as anybody, so we've got to make sure we do our part. Go back to the Jets game when a kickoff return ended up biting us in the butt."
FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH
In the 16th century, Ponce De Leon went to Florida in search of the Fountain of Youth. The NFL seems to have found it in Gainesville. Rookies this year from the University of Florida include Maurkice Pouncey, Joe Haden, Tim Tebow, Jermaine Cunningham, Carlos Dunlap, Brandon Spikes, Major Wright, Aaron Hernandez and Riley Cooper. Most of them will end up on various All-Rookie teams this season. Two of the best will see each other today in Cleveland.
"Man, Joe Haden is a baller," the Pro Bowl-bound Pouncey said of Cleveland's rookie cornerback. "He's been a baller ever since he was a little kid. In Little League he was an all-star. In high school he was an all-star. And in college he was an All-American. What does he have 6 interceptions this season?"
Haden is tied for second in the NFL with 6 interceptions. His first was against the Steelers. And Haden returned Ben Roethlisberger's first interception of the season 62 yards to set up a field goal and an early 3-0 lead for the Browns.
"I was trying to chase him down," Pouncey said. "He cut across the field like five times. He's a good player. He's my boy."
It seems the Steelers face one of Pouncey's "boys" every week. Haden was the first of the Florida bunch to be drafted in 2010 when the Browns chose him seventh overall.
"He's a good player, like a lot of guys who came out of that Florida program last year," Tomlin said. "We went down there and watched their Pro Day. It's not surprising what many of those guys are doing."
Pouncey hopes his coach will drink from that Florida fountain again next April for his twin brother Mike, a guard who's attended the last two Steelers games.
"Oh man, he definitely wants to be here," Pouncey said. "He came to the Jets and the Carolina game. He had a good time."
ON A ROLL
Ben Roethlisberger hasn't thrown an interception in 136 passes. He was last intercepted by Josh Wilson of the Baltimore Ravens on Dec. 5. It's Roethlisberger's personal best streak and is the Steelers' best since Kordell Stewart went 159 consecutive passes without an interception in 2001. Bubby Brister holds the team record of 179 in 1989.
When the streak was brought up to Roethlisberger, he interrupted the questioner by saying, "Oh, here we go. First pass will be intercepted." Then he was asked to explain the hot streak.
"That to me is the worst," Roethlisberger said. "I'd rather have five percent completions and no interceptions. Interceptions drive me crazy. That's something I try to pride myself on, just try to see the throw before I throw it."
Roethlisberger has thrown only 5 interceptions this season, well below his previous best of 9 in 2005. His interception percentage of 1.4 is also a career low, bettering the 2.4 percent intercepted last season.
"That's a big shadow to get out of, but I've got to give him a lot of credit. From the time I've got here I've tried to be like Aaron Smith. I try to work like him. I try to approach the game like him. So he gets a lot of credit for my success."