Steelers still waiting to see the big-play Polamalu they drafted

Updated: October 30, 2003, 5:48 PM ET
ESPN

PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Steelers were so convinced strong safety Troy Polamalu would upgrade their deficient defense, they traded up in the first round for the first time in their history to draft him.

Nearly halfway through his first NFL season, Polamalu's impact has been minimal. He doesn't have an interception or a forced fumble, and the big hits he so often delivered at Southern Cal haven't been visible even in practice.

Polamalu, a backup strong safety, hears the rumblings that he isn't the physical player the Steelers expected him to be: strong enough to take on big running backs, yet fast enough to play man-to-man coverage against top receivers.

He says it has been difficult learning the Steelers' vast playbook, one that defensive coordinator Tim Lewis says is three times bigger than that at most colleges.

He also won't predict when it will come together for him, only that, "There's still a long ways for me to go."

"It's hard coming in and learning a defense guys have been playing for eight to 10 years," said Polamalu, who plays mostly in the nickel and dime defenses and on special teams. "To have somebody step in and expect to get everything right away, it's pretty tough, especially at the safety position where you've got to learn everybody's job ... and play it at a faster pace."

Mike Logan, the starting strong safety who was supposed to be beaten out by Polamalu, said the rookie is being too hard on himself and is making discernible process. Lewis agrees.

The only problem, they say, is Polamalu plays a position where fans notice only big plays (interceptions) or big mistakes (being beaten badly in pass coverage), not the vast majority of things a defensive back does right.

"When you first get into the NFL, you're really eager to go out and make plays and show you fit in," Logan said. "There was so much pressure on him to come in and fix all the problems in our secondary, upgrade the speed, be a sure tackler. He was a No. 1 pick and we traded some picks to get him. We gave him a lot of money upfront. You compound all those things on a young guy, of course you're going to come in and be unstable at the beginning."

So far, Polamalu's two most visible moments were plays he'd rather forget.

He let Marc Bulger's pass slip through his fingers Sunday and directly into the hands of Rams receiver Dane Looker for a 22-yard reception, setting up Arlen Harris' touchdown run in St. Louis' 33-21 victory. A month earlier, he drew a face mask penalty to keep a Tennessee touchdown drive going in the Titans' 30-13 victory.

"I know I need to improve," Polamalu said. "We're 2-5 and I really haven't helped this team up to this point, but it's a long season and we've got a long way to go."

Lewis suggests much of the pressure on Polamalu will be relieved as soon he makes a positive play that substantially helps the Steelers.

"He needs to make a play for his own confidence," Lewis said. "He needs to do that just to feel good about himself. He really couldn't have put himself in any better position on the (Looker catch) at the 1-yard line. When you watch him work out, when you watch him practice and catch balls, he's as natural and fluid as anybody."

Polamalu laughs at suggestions he should go out and play naturally and instinctively, rather than being obsessed with putting himself in perfect position on every down.

"Well, you can't just go out there and play on instincts," he said. "You've got to know where to line up and what your keys are. As soon as you learn that, then you can be instinctive. I feel I'm getting there, but I'm definitely not at that point."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index