Defenders Return Healthy and Hopeful

Troy Polamalu and Aaron Smith ended last season with varying degrees of injuries. And both enter the final years of their Steelers contracts with varying outlooks on their futures.

LATROBE — While the Steelers front office continues to "multitask," as coach Mike Tomlin put it Thursday evening, there are a few negotiations — very important negotiations — that have been back-burnered.

That seems to be OK with Aaron Smith and Troy Polamalu. Both players have faith in their employers.

As both defensive starters enter the final year of their contracts, they do so knowing the team has a fairly full plate already, as Pittsburgh and the rest of the NFL deal with an offseason that wasn't and a real season that looms on the horizon.

Smith enters his 13th season after finishing the last two on the sidelines. His importance to the Steelers run defense is unquestioned, even though the team made major investments in recent years to find Smith's eventual replacement at left defensive end.

Ziggy Hood was more than adequate at Smith's spot after Smith suffered a torn triceps muscle. Cameron Heyward, like Hood two years earlier, is also a first-round draft pick.

Smith appears to be a prime candidate for an extension, as the Steelers continue to prune their salary cap to a manageable place. As the team scours the waiver wire, explores veteran free agents and works on an extension for franchise player LaMarr Woodley, it has to know Smith is willing to agree to an extension that would put more money immediately in his pocket while lowering his salary-cap bite at the same time.

"No one has mentioned anything to me," Smith said Friday. "I'm at the point in my career where it's year-to-year for me. I'm just going to play this out and see how it goes."

Polamalu's situation is similar, yet different.

Entering his ninth season, Polamalu is the NFL's best safety, according to teammate Ryan Clark and many others. He could be protesting loudly about the team's priorities and demanding that something be done about it. But that's not Polamalu's style.

"Nothing so far," Polamalu said when asked about progress on a new contract. "The lockout changed the process quite a bit. It's a dream of mine to retire a Pittsburgh Steeler."

Exactly what the Steelers want to hear from Polamalu.

Like Smth, Polamalu's contract situation lends itself to a cap-friendly extension. Also like Smith, Polamalu finished last season injured -- on the field, even in Super Bowl XVL, but injured nonetheless.

Polamalu said Friday, with ice taped to his lower left leg, that he still isn't 100 percent healthy, but that he is close to it.

Asked if he was now willing to put a percentage on his health for the Super Bowl, Polamalu said, "It was a losing percentage. I didn't play very well. I've played some of my best games injured, so it's not fair to say I didn't play well because of the injury."

Smith wishes he'd been that lucky. He was injured just enough to keep him from playing. After ending the previous season on injured reserve, Smith was kept on the roster in hopes he could return last year, perhaps just for the Super Bowl. But he only spectated.

"Last year was harder because I had a chance. Mentally, that's a harder challenge," said Smith, proclaiming himself at 100 percent and ready to go now. "The whole thing was kind of bittersweet. I was happy for the guys as we kept winning in the playoffs, but I couldn't do anything to help them."

Perhaps the biggest difference between Polamalu and Smith is the stage of their respective careers. Polamalu has at least another big contract in front of him; Smith is beginning to see the handwriting on the wall.

"I'd be fooling myself if I didn't think one of those guys was going to replace me, eventually," Smith said. "That's how I got my job. All you can do is come out and compete, do the best you can and try to help the younger guys as much as you can. I don't believe in sabotaging the young guys. That's how I learned was from the older guys. I'm about winning.

"I just want to play football. I love competing every day."

So, too, does Polamalu. In fact, he competes at a level that often leads to injuries. This particular one did not require surgery, but that fact may have led to this longer-than-usual recovery.

"Without surgery, sometimes it takes longer to heal," Polamalu said. "The lockout was a good thing in that sense."

And in another sense, as well. Instead of testing his leg in mini-camps and OTAs, Polamalu managed to earn a college degree. He said he has a few more years before he can get his teaching certificate.

"I've always wanted to be a teacher at the secondary level," Polamalu said.

In the meantime, he'll busy himself trying to remain the best player at the same level in football.


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