Over the seasons, since the Pittsburgh Steelers and Troy Polamalu parted ways, the team has lacked the spark, athleticism, aggressiveness, and intensity at the strong safety position he provided. Strong safeties in the NFL are generally judged on their coverage skills, ability to step up in run defense, tackling skills and play-making, especially on conversion plays (third-down, fourth-down). The Steelers need to reignite the spirit and spark that Polamalu brought to the position, either through changes to their personnel or defensive scheme this offseason.
The Steelers tried Will Allen at the position during the 2015 season with mixed results. Allen started the season off rough and unpolished but managed to clean up his play somewhat in the final weeks. Logging 13 starts, the Steelers lacked better options at downfield coverage and left Allen in place. Allen was a decent run-defender but lacked overall athleticism and, at 33, he was banking on experience to stay competitive. He has 74 solo tackles on 90 percent of the team's defensive snaps (in games he played) but was guilty of 19 missed tackles and it was apparent he'd lost a step.
That same season Mike Mitchell looked great during OTAs and mini-camp, roaming the field, but didn't fully live up to the five-year, $25 million free agent contract he'd signed in the offseason. Part of that was due to groin injuries sustained prior to training camp and a 10-day stint on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list at camp. Although he returned for the preseason and season, he was unable to play at full speed. He was second on the Steelers roster with 71 total tackles and two forced fumbles but did not record a sack or interception, something Pittsburgh had banked on heavily in signing him. Following the season, Mitchell required surgery for the groin injuries that just would not heal correctly.
Shamarko Thomas, who'd been drafted by the Steelers in 2013 as the 'heir apparent' to Polamalu, was the third-stringer that season behind Damon Cromartie-Smith. When he was sidelined due to an ankle injury, Pittsburgh brought in Allen and the writing seemed like it may be on the wall. Thomas would spend the offseason with Polamalu to train under Marv Marinovich and battled Allen for the backup spot behind Polamalu but only earned it when Allen was moved to the free safety position behind Mitchell. He struggled throughout the season and the following rough preseason in 2015 forced the Steelers coaching staff to relegate him to backup duties behind Allen for good. Thomas registered just 12 tackles in 15 games and spent a majority of his time on special teams.
Entering the offseason, Thomas was given an opportunity to compete for the top of the depth chart at strong safety with the release of Allen. The Steelers were overhauling their pass defense after ending the 2015 season ranked 28th in the league in pass defense. The Steelers, who'd signed Robert Golden as an undrafted rookie free agent in 2012, were impressed with his perseverance and improvement and opted to let Thomas and Golden go head-to-head in camp and throw draft choice Sean Davis into the mix as well. Golden and Davis outperformed and on Christmas Eve, Thomas was sent to Injured Reserve.
The Steelers re-signed Golden to a new contract and gave him the starting strong safety spot. While starting the first nine games of the season at the position, the Steelers rotated Davis into the game against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 9. Two weeks later, Golden was benched as Davis emerged as a better option.
Davis spent time playing the nickel position due to an injury to Senquez Golson, but in the season opener against the Washington Redskins, Davis showed a level of maturity and athleticism, recording four tackles, that the Steelers wanted to see on defense. He would suffer an injury to his back and fellow rookie Artie Burns moved into the nickelback spot from the slot. When Davis replaced Golden at strong safety, he recorded three combined tackles and a pass deflection against the Cleveland Browns and then started against the Indianapolis Colts where, late in the second quarter, he prevented a go-ahead touchdown. Davis finished the season with 70 combined tackles, five pass deflections, 1.5 sacks and an interception (16 games, nine starts). He would remain a key component to the Steelers' plans at safety throughout the playoffs.
Davis' performance was reminiscent of Polamalu's level of production. Polamalu recorded his highest tackle total (73) in 2005. Davis' 1.5 sacks in 2016 mirrored Polamalu's average performance over his career (minus four seasons). It looked like the Steelers had finally found someone who would create the type of pressure they needed at the position while being able to shift from coverage to pressuring opposing quarterbacks to stopping the run. Davis wasn't Polamalu, but he was a nice upgrade at the position.
Prior to the season, Davis was forced to have surgery to repair a torn labrum, but after training camp with Mitchell, Golden, and Jordan Dangerfield, head coach Mike Tomlin felt Davis would be the starting strong safety. After Dangerfield and Mitchell were both injured, the Steelers reached out to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and brought in J.J. Wilcox in a trade deal.
Davis suffered a bit of a sophomore slump and Mitchell was moved to the starting spot, but over the course of the season, the Steelers would rotate personnel in their defensive backfield as the unit struggled for consistency. His best performance was during Week 14 against the Baltimore Ravens when he recorded a season-high 12 combined tackles and an interception. He finished the season with 92 combined tackles (71 solo), eight pass deflections, three interceptions and a sack (16 games, 16 starts).
Wilcox got his first start against the Ravens early in the season, but only played in 12 games. He spent more time at free safety and had just one pass defense, one interception, and nine total tackles.
Golden recorded 15 combined tackles, two pass defenses, and an interception in 16 games (two starts).
Mitchell logged 35 combined tackles, no pass defenses, no interceptions in 13 games (12 starts).
Finding the spark
Polamalu finished his career with the Steelers with 581 combined tackles (197 solo), 12.0 sacks, 32 interceptions (for three touchdowns), 14 forced fumbles (seven recoveries), and 108 pass defenses. He was a special player who didn't fit into a mold for what a strong, or even free, safety should be. In a lot of ways, Polamalu was a hybrid defender who was freakishly active and covered the field creating havoc at will. There is unlikely to be anyone just like him.
The Steelers don't need a clone of Polamalu, they need someone with a similar no-quit attitude who can be trusted to cover receivers downfield, make tough tackles, stay around the ball, help his cornerbacks, be versatile enough to cover the slot and tight ends while being able to protect the deep field of play while stacking and attacking in the box. It sounds like a tall order, but that's the nature of the safety position in today's NFL.
There are a few college players who will enter the NFL Combine that are worth watching. You can believe that Pittsburgh is sending scouts out to make personal visits at Pro Days. With changes to the coaching staff, especially the hiring of Tom Bradley as defensive backs coach, safety is bound to be a position within the top three spots on the 'big board' at the 2018 NFL Draft. Finding a free agent safety that meets their needs will be a little tougher, but isn't out of the question. However they accomplish it, finding the spark, the Steelers can't afford another season with uncertainty at safety.