From 2007 through 2010, the Steelers were 40-14 with Polamalu in the lineup for a winning percentage of .741.
During that same time, the Steelers were 8-9 without Polamalu in the lineup for a winning percentage of .471.
The numbers were merely transposed, but the seasons, particularly 2009, were turned upside down.
These days, the Steelers aren't quite so delicate. And they're thanking the guy who has grown out of the shadow of Polamalu, Ryan Mundy.
"Extremely hard worker," free safety Ryan Clark said of Mundy. "If you watch him he's constantly trying to get better. He's not a guy who sits behind Troy and I and thinks he should be playing. He doesn't sit behind Troy and I and not take advice. He'll accept the help. He soaks up things and has progressed every year to where if Troy or I go down we know we can put him in and he's going to be productive."
In his first career start, Mundy made four tackles in a loss to the Jets, but improved significantly in a win over the Panthers in which he made nine tackles and broke up a pass.
Mundy hasn't started a game this season, but did replace Polamalu in the first series of the Kansas City game. Polamalu was forced to the sideline and Mundy stepped in with his best game yet. He made 11 tackles – 9 solo – and intercepted fellow Pittsburgh native Tyler Palko early in the second quarter of a 3-3 game.
Mundy's interception led to the Steelers' only touchdown of the game and they held on for a 13-9 win – again, without Polamalu.
The good news is the latter news is becoming non-news with Mundy's development.
"The position he's gotten to play has become very comfortable for him," explained Clark. "I think he does a good job of always keeping good leverage, of always being intelligent enough to know where his help is or when a linebacker's spilling the ball, and he's such a big, strong, physical guy that he's able to make tons of plays in the run, tons of plays in the short-passing game, and he's also so intelligent as to understand where to fit. He can't do the things that Troy does because Troy's a special talent, but the way he plays is really excellent and he could be a top-notch strong safety in this league."
Born and raised in Pittsburgh's West End, Mundy and his family moved to Wilkins Township (near Monroeville Mall) when he was a high school sophomore. He became part of the Woodland Hills school district and immediately began winning football games.
In Mundy's three prep seasons, the Wolverines lost only one WPIAL game and went to the state championship game twice. Mundy set a school record with 54 career catches, but most of those came his senior season – after quarterback Steve Breaston had departed.
"He didn't throw me the ball," Mundy said of the NFL player who remains one of his closest friends. "Steve would just drop back, take off and run, and score 80-yard touchdowns."
Mundy eventually followed Breaston to Michigan where Mundy became the starting free safety in his second year. After his senior season, Mundy transferred to West Virginia to take advantage of the post-graduate transfer rule. There, Mundy not only started 13 games as a box safety in WVU's 3-3-5 alignment, he earned a master's degree in sports administration. He was selected with the Steelers final pick of the 2008 draft (6b) and was praised for his understanding of the defense at his first minicamp.
Of course, with Tyrone Carter backing up Polamalu (and Anthony Smith backing up Clark), Mundy could only make the practice squad in 2008, but he said it was the best thing that could've happened to him.
"I had the opportunity to sit back and watch guys like Troy, Ryan, James Farrior, how they prepared, how they got ready for the game," Mundy said. "That really helped me out. I could sit back and watch without getting ready for the game myself. It allowed me to find my groove in how I take care of my body, how to study film, my whole approach to being a professional."
In 2009 Mundy played in all 16 games, mainly on special teams but sometimes as a hybrid linebacker in three-safety packages.
Last year, Mundy became the top reserve at safety, as his two starts attest, and he made 23 tackles on defense and 15 on special teams (fourth).
This year, Mundy is more than a top reserve. He's a viable starter when Polamalu or Clark can't go. After 11 games, Mundy had 19 tackles on defense and nine on special teams (second to Curtis Brown's 10). Mundy has also taken on a role as mentor to the young defensive backs.
"Well, I am getting older," he said. "The time's starting to fly by, but it's really been a blessing for my career to work under Troy and Ryan. Troy's not much of a talker, and I had to really figure that out my first year, but he leads by example. He has outstanding athletic ability and obviously we're not the same in that regard. He can do things that I can't do, and I acknowledge that. But some things I do pick up from him, like how he approaches the game, how he studies the game. The biggest thing that I've learned from him is to just go out there and play; let it all hang out. That's what he does every Sunday. He's not afraid to make that play. He's not afraid to make a mistake. Really that's what holds a lot of people back, the fear of making a mistake, the fear of being embarrassed, but he has no fear like that. He just goes out there and goes for it."
Soon, it will be Mundy's turn to go for it on every play on every Sunday.
"He probably plays with two of the most reckless safeties in football," said Clark. "I tell him, ‘Just keep improving, man. Give me a couple more years to feed my family.' And then he can have it."