Game Day Notebook

Troy Polamalu returns to the turning point of his career; Monday Night Mike Wallace; and watching out for ex-Bengals on the bay.

The last time the Steelers traveled to San Francisco to play the 49ers, a 30-14 loss on Nov. 17, 2003 dropped the Steelers' to 3-7 during their lost 6-10 season.

But the trip wasn't a complete loss. It was that game, that Monday night game, which is looked back upon as the turning point for Troy Polamalu.

It was the game in which he first let his hair down.

"That's probably where I started to feel comfortable," said Polamalu. "It was about going back to San Francisco, going back to California. I just kind of felt like, ‘OK, now it's time' and I did let my hair down for the first time there."

Polamalu had hoped to do it – let his Samoan warrior flag fly from underneath his helmet – in his first career start, but that didn't appear to be in the offing as he trudged through his sub-standard rookie season as a sub-package defender.

Troy's uncle, Kennedy Polamalu, prodded Troy for much of the season about letting his hair down, but Troy wouldn't agree until the trip to San Francisco, located some 30 miles south of the midpoint between his birthplace of Sana Ana, California, and his schoolboy home in Tenmile, Oregon.

"Being back in California really made me feel back home, and it was really where I felt like I could finally let myself loose and started playing ball like I always wanted to," Polamalu said. "I never had any hesitation in anything, so it's a good memory."

On the opening kickoff, Polamalu drilled return man Cedrick Wilson. He lifted Wilson off the ground before planting him on his back at the 28-yard line. It announced that Polamalu's career was on.

"Just being in California, being around my family and getting in good weather," Polamalu explained. "It was kind of where my career started, in college. I know every time we go out to California it's always a nice feeling to be in warm weather, to be where I was born."

Polamalu missed three practices this week with a hamstring injury, but the Steelers' strong safety practiced Saturday and is listed as probable for tonight's game. Awaiting him is freakish San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, the 250-pounder who ran a sub-4.4 40 at his combine when he came out of Maryland in 2006.

"He's probably the most athletically talented tight end in the game today," Polamalu said. "He does it all."

MONDAY NIGHT MIKE

Bruce Arians gave a long, dull answer to this week's long, dull topic: What can Baltimore Ravens coach John Harbaugh do to help his brother, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, beat the Steelers?

Arians finished his assessment with a pause and added, "I'll tell them Mike Wallace is fast."

But Wallace is in a funk. He hasn't had a 100-yard game in his last six, or since he caught a 95-yard touchdown pass in Arizona on Oct. 23. He's expecting a breakout tonight.

"Yeah, I'm thinking about changing my name to Monday Night Mike," he said. And he didn't laugh.

It'll help Wallace if 49ers inside linebacker Patrick Willis can't play. Wallace was on the same Ole Miss team as Willis for two years. He remembers meeting Willis on the field early in his freshman year.

"I was running a post route and he covered me," Wallace said. "I remember him hitting me so far into the middle of the field. I was like, ‘Man this must be what it feels like to be in college.' I didn't know this was one of the greatest college players when I first got there."

Willis became the 49ers' first-round draft pick in 2007 and was named AP Defensive Rookie of the Year and the team's first first-team All-Pro since Ronnie Lott in 1981. He's played in the Pro Bowl after each of his four seasons and according to Gamebook statistics leads the NFL with 680 tackles since 2007.

"He's amazing," Wallace said. "I know we have some really great linebackers; I love all of our guys. But I've never seen anybody play like this guy. This guy has a motor out of this world. I've seen him play with a fractured foot, a broken hand. He had a boot on his foot, a club on his hand and he's still out there making 18, 19 tackles. I've never seen a guy like that in my life."

If Monday Night Mike is lucky, he won't see him again tonight.

FORMER BENGALS FIND LIFE

They might not win any awards, but two former Cincinnati Bengals have found their hearts in San Francisco.

One is defensive tackle Justin Smith, who's started 168 consecutive games, dating back to his rookie season in 2001 with the Bengals.

Smith joined the 49ers in 2008 and leads the organization in sacks since that time. Based on Gamebook statistics, Smith leads all NFL defensive linemen since 2001 with 715 tackles, or 142 more than runner-up Pat Williams.

This season, Smith is third on his team with 87 tackles. He also has 5.5 sacks and 3 forced fumbles.

"He is a finisher," said Steelers receiver Hines Ward. "Somehow, someway in the fourth quarter he finds a way to make a play and win the game for his team. He's still playing at a high level. He's kind of been that veteran guy because they're trying to run the same thing Baltimore is running, so he's teaching the younger guys, and when he comes in he closes it out."

Another top contributor from Cincinnati is outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks, who has 11 tackles for loss, 6 sacks and 30 quarterback hits. He was drafted by the Bengals in the third round of the 2006 supplemental draft after his ballyhooed college career at Virginia came to a crashing halt when he was kicked off the team following an injury-plagued and suspension-laden junior season.

"When we were in school he was one of the best, most talented, defensive players – or football players period – I had ever seen or played against," said Steelers tight end Heath Miller, a former college teammate.

Brooks played the weakside inside linebacker position in Virginia's 3-4. In Pittsburgh, it would be called the mack, or the position where Lawrence Timmons starts. Now, Brooks is playing outside linebacker in the 49ers' 3-4.

"He's doing a great job, and from what I've seen on film he's still the same guy," Miller said. "They've got a great group of linebackers."


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