LATROBE -- Mike Mitchell may have been the big free-agent signing of the offseason, but the Steelers' new free safety injured his groin right before training camp and is expected to miss at least a week.
The Steelers -- as they did in the spring when strong safety Troy Polamalu was absent -- turned to Will Allen, a 32-year-old veteran who left Pittsburgh last year to sign with the Dallas Cowboys as a free agent, but who returned to Pittsburgh in mid-season after the Cowboys cut him.
It appears that the Steelers have turned to the journeyman instead of Shamarko Thomas, the second-year safety the Steelers thought they had stolen in the fourth round of the 2013 draft after trading a 2014 third-rounder.
You may remember Thomas as the nickel back who made two starts early last season, was judged to have performed well, but who hasn't played much more than special teams since Allen returned.
So, what about Thomas? Has there been any love lost?
"No, not at all," said DBs coach Carnell Lake, the guy who called Thomas a first-rounder moments after Thomas was drafted.
"I have really high hopes and high expectations for Shamarko. I think he's going to be a fantastic safety."
But why play Allen at both safety positions with the first team so far this year?
"Will still can play," Lake said. "He's got great experience. He's been making plays for us. I think in some ways it's a little bit of a blessing for Shamarko because he can learn from these guys, and when he hits the ground running it's going to be exciting to watch."
Thomas learned from one of the all-time greats this past summer. And he learned much more than Xs and Os when he moved in with Polamalu and his family for a week.
"I was only out there for a week, but it felt like a month because he trains so hard," said Thomas. "For a guy like that, that's going to be a Hall of Famer, to take me out there and show me the ropes, it was just an amazing experience. I changed a lot from my first year to my second year and that's from Troy talking to me every day. (He's) always in my ear about God and the way that I train and how I carry myself."
Polamalu has invited players to his home in La Jolla, California, in the past, although he said he has never been forceful about it, but that "Shamarko really wanted to come out," Polamalu said.
Thomas became the first teammate to follow up on Polamalu's invitation, which makes for perfect symmetry since Thomas is expected to replace the 33-year-old Polamalu as the Steelers' strong safety, possibly as soon as next season.
"I texted him and told him I want to be great," said Thomas. "He was explaining what it takes to be great, but he said, 'You've got to show me action first, by being mature and the way you carry yourself off the field.' One day, we just got in a conversation about coming out there and training with him and that's just what happened.”
"Shamarko's a great person," Polamalu explained. "He's somebody who's eager to learn."
Polamalu developed his workout routine over the past 12 years with the help of his trainer, Marv Marinovich. But Polamalu didn't go into much detail, other than to joke that he and Thomas sat on the beach with "fish tacos and cheeseburgers and hot dogs, put 15-pound ankle weights on our hands, and every time we put food in our mouths our biceps got bigger."
In the past, Polamalu has discussed how his low-weight, high-rep routine maximizes quick-twitch muscle explosion, and of course agility.
“Like a karate movie," was how Thomas explained it. "It's like some ninja stuff. But it works for him and I feel it will work for me, too.”
But there's more to Polamalu's routine than the workout. Much more.
"To me, training is not only a football discipline, it's a very spiritual exercise," said Polamalu. "It's about pushing your boundaries not only as a football player but as a person. My goal in training and learning to train isn't necessarily to maximize yourself as an athlete only, but as a human being, spiritually, physically, emotionally. That's my view of training. Others may be completely training physically. You give up some things in some areas and I think you gain a lot more in areas that I think are more important."
"It was an amazing experience," said Thomas. "You can learn from that type of guy, not just working out, but his mentality, the way he goes about his days and how he takes care of his family.”
As a result, Thomas has brought a new discipline to this training camp, along with one important item.
“My Bible," he said. "Troy told me to keep after it. That Bible can make you strong because this is one of the toughest three weeks, four weeks of our lives. The game is easy. Just my Bible and I'll be fine.”
And on the field?
“I've matured a lot," Thomas said. "Last year, it was just a fast game and there were a lot of things going through your head, not only on the field, but off the field, too. So this year, everything has slowed down, and I'm stable, I'm relaxed and I'm calm, just ready to play.”
When will he get his chance? As a nickel back, like last year?
"No," said Lake. "He's playing pure safety right now, and I think that's really good for him. Last year with the calls that safeties are required to give to the defense to help guys get lined up, to make the adjustments when receivers go in motion, it's like night and day for Shamarko.
"Shamarko is very confident. He's forceful in his calls, and it's just a matter of time. He's a good one."