Logan holding off Polamalu

<b>LATROBE -</b> It was a given heading into training camp this year that rookie Troy Polamalu would be the Steelers starting strong safety when the team lines up to play the Baltimore Ravens Sept. 7th in its regular season opener.

The Steelers had traded up in the first round of the draft for the first time in team history to acquire Polamalu, making it only natural to feel the team wanted Polamalu to be its strong safety. But that line of thinking didn't take into account the play of veteran Mike Logan.

Logan has had a very strong training camp at strong safety and it appears as if he will hold off Polamalu to be the team's starter at that position.

"Mike Logan has had an outstanding camp," said head coach Bill Cowher. "There's no question about it."

"I like where we are at that position. We improved the speed of the position and like the depth we have at that position as well."

For now, Polamalu will be that depth while also playing in the nickel and dime defenses.

"Troy's going to play a lot and help this defense," said veteran free safety Brent Alexander. "He's a fast guy and he can do all of the things you need a safety to do. It's just a learning process now."

Lesson one came for Polamalu in the Steelers' preseason opener at Detroit. The knock on him prior to the draft was that at 5-10, he might be too short to effectively cover NFL tight ends. Against the Lions he was beaten by unheralded Detroit Lions rookie tight end Casey Fitzsimmons for a 20-yard gain on a pass from Mike McMahon on a fourth-and-two play.

"I just got beat, just got beat," Polamalu said. "I was in man-to-man coverage with the tight end. No excuses, I just got beat."

"If I want to help this team win a Super Bowl, I've got a lot to learn."

At least Polamalu is a willing student. He knows he has to be more physical with the players who try to use their size advantage against him.

"I have to do that and use better technique. I have to use better leverage," Polamalu said. "It's something I've always had to deal with. The tight ends here are the same size they were in the Pac-10."

Alexander said the biggest thing for the rookie to learn will be reacting to plays rather than having to think everything through. That will allow him to play more naturally.

"Playing safety is different than if you are at corner," Alexander said. "If you're at corner and you're in man coverage, that's easy. I've got the guy in front of me and I don't have to worry about anything else. But as safeties, we play more zone. Your first thought when a guy runs through your zone is to run with that guy. That's the instinct. But if you run too far with that guy, now you're in somebody else's zone and you've got two guys covering one and you left your zone open. It's a learning process. You have to know what the guys' responsibilities are around you."

Polamalu was an All-America safety and All-Conference pick at the University of Southern California in the pass happy Pac-10. The 210-pounder built a reputation as a big hitter and has shown he can be an effective blitzer and run stopper. But even though he possesses excellent speed, the questions about his size will linger.

And you can bet the Ravens have already watched Fitzsimmons beat Polamalu for a big gain. They'll spend the next few weeks figuring out a plan to get the rookie matched up one-on-one with their Pro Bowl tight end Todd Heap, whom Polamalu played against twice in college.

The big tight end abused the Steelers for 13 receptions for 197 yards and one touchdown in two games last season, which is one of the big reasons the team wanted to upgrade its speed at strong safety over last year's starter Lee Flowers, who was not offered a contract by the Steelers and signed with Denver. Cowher feels he has done that by elevating Logan and adding Polamalu to the mix.

"The strong safety will get involved with coverage a lot more," Cowher said. "Carnell (Lake) when he was here played like a cornerback. Mike can play like a corner. Troy can play like a corner. So we won't be putting ourselves in bad matchup situations where people can find that matchup and create that matchup if you have a limitation back there. If you have one guy back there who's a pretty good coverage guy then it's easier to make adjustments if you have matchup problems."

How did Polamalu fare against the 6-5, 252-pound Heap? "Not very well," he said. "I'm still trying to figure him out. He runs like a receiver, but he's as big as a tackle. He's a special player."

But the Steelers feel they got a special player in Polamalu. And he'll get plenty of opportunities to figure Heap out over the next few seasons as the two will be locked up against each other in twice-yearly battles in the AFC North.

In other news Thursday, the heat index of the afternoon practice reached 104 degrees, the hottest it has been this year. Defensive end Brett Keisel had to leave the field as a precautionary measure, but Cowher said through the team's public relations department that Keisel is not expected to miss any time. ... Cowher ruled out center Jeff Hartings and quarterback Tim Levcik, both of who are out with knee injuries, for Saturday's preseason game against Philadelphia and those two were the only players not to practice Thursday. ... To help Jerome Bettis with the heat, wide receiver Hines Ward dumped a Gatorade bucket of water over an unsuspecting Bettis' head.

Dale Lolley

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