Healthy Polamalu has Steelers confident

A healthy Troy Polamalu is key to the Pittsburgh Steelers' success in 2013. Joe Sargent/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH -- A human knot had formed in one corner of the Steelers' locker room. Unfortunately for Troy Polamalu it did not leave much wiggle room in the area where the Steelers' strong safety dresses.

Polamalu is as polite off the field as he is intense between the lines. But more often than not, filling the notebooks of reporters and providing sounds bites for Pittsburgh TV stations is not something he does particularly well.

And this was one of those times, following the Steelers' penultimate practice before the 2013 season opener against Tennessee. The group interview lasted fewer than two minutes. It ended when a reporter, playing off a question about the Steelers containing running back Chris Johnson, asked with a coaxing smile, how the Titans would do the same with No. 43.

"Easy, I'm sure," Polamalu said in the soft voice that belies the walloping hits he delivers on the field.

The reporters dispersed, and they are among those who will have to be content to let Polamalu deliver any statements with his play.

A quiet confidence permeates the Steelers' locker room, and Polamalu's return to health is one of the biggest reasons for optimism following an 8-8 season.

"He looks amazing," said starting free safety Ryan Clark, one of Polamalu's closest friends on the Steelers. "His weight's down, he's moving well."

Polamalu did not move well for a good chunk of 2012 as he missed nine games because of a recurring calf injury. Staying on the field this season is imperative if the Steelers are to return to the playoffs and make a run at a seventh world championship.

As Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said, "A healthy Troy is hell for opposing teams."

Any number of "SportsCenter" highlights or YouTube videos can corroborate this. It can also be quantified.

The Steelers have given up an average of just over 20 points in games Polamalu has missed since 2009. They have allowed 15.5 points in the games that he has played the past four seasons.

The differential is significant considering the Steelers played nine games last season that were decided by three points or fewer -- and lost five of them.

What should have the Steelers hopeful that Polamalu won't break down this season are the pre-emptive steps the 5-foot-10, 207-pounder has taken. Heeding advice he received long ago from former teammate Jerome Bettis, Polamalu altered his approach to the offseason.

And the first thing he did was make sure his injured calf was fully healthy before he took time off to let the rest of his body recover from a long season. That allowed Polamalu to ultimately start offseason training without any lingering injuries, something Bettis had told him was a key to longevity.

"Probably the biggest misconception people have is that injuries go away without really rehabbing (them)," Polamalu said. "When you're young you can get away with those types of things."

That is not all that Polamalu, who turned 32 in April, did in deference to age.

He increased the regularity with which he received deep-tissue massages even though he has to rise at 5 a.m. for the treatments. The 11-year veteran has remained committed to that part of his training regimen, so much so that Polamalu sometimes flies his massage therapist in from California to work with him.

"I have always done it, but it's more focused during the season," Polamalu said of deep-tissues massages. "It's just so time consuming. When you leave [the Steelers' practice facility], it's still football-related [activities] whether it's massage therapy or stretch therapy. A lot of guys in the NFL might not go to bed until 9 o'clock. It starts again at 5 o'clock the next morning."

The early returns on the that time commitment have been encouraging for Polamalu -- and the Steelers.

"I don't know if he's practiced this much in a training camp in years," Clark said. "We haven't [in past years] had an opportunity to work together for a whole camp and try to figure some things out."

Now it will be up to opposing offenses to figure out how to deal with a healthy Polamalu.