And Lewis was a coach. He was the Steelers' first-year secondary coach in 1995, and he dog-paddled furiously to keep his head above water. What would've happened had he been a player? ">
And Lewis was a coach. He was the Steelers' first-year secondary coach in 1995, and he dog-paddled furiously to keep his head above water. What would've happened had he been a player? ">

Safeties playing it Safe

<b>PITTSBURGH -</b> One question looms after the Pittsburgh Steelers were picked apart by the St. Louis Rams last Sunday: <br><br> Is the defense that difficult to learn? <br><br> "Yes," said coordinator Tim Lewis. "It took me until the Super Bowl in '95 to really get a good grasp of it." <br><br> And Lewis was a coach. He was the Steelers' first-year secondary coach in 1995, and he dog-paddled furiously to keep his head above water. What would've happened had he been a player?

"I would've needed a redshirt year," he said.

That degree of difficulty explains A.) A rookie's confusion and B.) A coach's hesitation to use a young player.

Both A and B are occurring with the Steelers, a 2-5 team with a crying need for some youthful exuberance -- perhaps even recklessness -- on a defense that's given up 30 points or more four times this season and seven times in its last 10 games.

Label A belongs to rookie strong safety Troy Polamalu. Label B belongs to second-year free safety Chris Hope.

In the first example, we find a first-round draft pick with 4.37 speed and 37-inch vertical leap being afforded every opportunity to receive playing time. After all, the boss expects nothing less after trading up in the first round for the first time in franchise history.

But Polamalu's production hasn't jibed with his playing time. Coming into last Sunday's game against the Rams, he had only three tackles while playing nearly half the overall snaps as a deep safety in the nickel and dime packages.

Polamalu had a breakthrough of sorts against the Rams. He made three solo tackles was the team's only defensive back credited with a pass-defensed in the game. That play broke up a potential touchdown to Dane Looker on second-and-goal from the Pittsburgh 4 early in the third quarter.

Polamalu wasn't so fortunate on an earlier pass to Looker. He did race in front of Looker at the one-yard line, but allowed the ball to go through his hands and into Looker's. In between those two plays, Polamalu made an open-field tackle of Isaac Bruce that held what would've been a very long play to 23 yards.

Was it a breakthrough of sorts?

"I wouldn't say it was a breakthrough because I really didn't do anything special," Polamalu said.

About the three plays, Polamalu insisted he let the team down on all of them, even the pass break-up in the end zone.

"I probably should've intercepted that," he said. "And the other one I should've intercepted, too. Those are the plays the great players make -- Carnell Lake, Ronnie Lott. I'm trying to work to be on that level. Hopefully some day."

What about the open-field tackle?

"I was just doing my job there. That's just another play pretty much. They expect everybody to make those plays," Polamalu said, but admitted: "I definitely feel more comfortable out there. I'm starting to get closer and closer to making some plays but I've got to get over that hump and really make that turn to help this team out."

Whereas Polamalu remains humble through his many opportunities, his youthful partner, Hope, expressed great confidence in spite of limited chances.

A third-round draft pick last year, Hope made another big hit last Sunday. A wicked block sprung Antwaan Randle El for an 84-yard punt return for a touchdown. It was another in a line of plays Hope's been tracking.

"I had a nice hit on Eddie George last year; a nice hit in the playoff game on (Robert) Holcombe; I had a couple of good shots on Fred Taylor last year when we played Jacksonville; and Andre Davis in the playoff game."

That last hit at the knees ended Davis' game and season. And then it became an off-season of questions about using Hope in a secondary that needed help. Coach Bill Cowher, however, felt Hope too inconsistent to pass Brent Alexander for a starting job, and so Hope waits. "I definitely think I can do more than just special teams, no question," he said. "Look at the games I came in last year. I was rarely out of position, rarely made mistakes. I always bring the physical part of the game."

Is he frustrated?

"Everybody wants to play. That's the frustrating factor," Hope said. "If I wasn't ready to play I would understand it a little more, but being that I'm ready, I went through my rookie year, I know the game speed, I know the defense, that's the frustrating part of it. But like I said, I've got to just take advantage of every opportunity I get."

If he does, there's a day, not too far off, when Hope and Polamalu - the highest-drafted safety tandem in the franchise's modern history - will be in the starting lineup together.

"Two young safeties, fast, aggressive, versatile, good enough to cover, good tacklers," Hope said. "Hopefully that's the big picture one day."


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