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PITTSBURGH -- Troy Polamalu will play regularly with only his third free safety next season, and the switch from Ryan Clark to Mike Mitchell wasn't the only change that stood out to the eight-time Pro Bowler upon his return to the Steelers for the first time since the end of last season.
"It's strange to be the oldest, most experienced guy on the team," said Polamalu, who shares that distinction with cornerback Ike Taylor. "When Jerome (Bettis) was here, one of the greatest running backs ever to play the game, and he was old, I hoped that one day I would get old and play as long as him. Now here I am. I guess I'm old, too."
Polamalu, who is going into his 12th season, has done what he can to stave off the effects of time. That explains why the face of the Steelers' defense skipped organized team activities and only showed for minicamp because it is mandatory.
Polamalu trains with Marv Marinovich and physical therapist Alex Guerrero in California during the offseason. There is a good reason why the veteran strong safety saw no reason to change his regimen. Polamalu played every game last season and led the team in total snaps (1,041) despite seeing significant playing time at inside linebacker when the Steelers went to one of their favored sub-packages. Polamalu led the Steelers with five forced fumbles while intercepting two passes and recording 85 tackles.
If Polamalu, who turned 33 in April, is anywhere as durable this season as he was in 2013, his decision to train in California will prove to be a wise one.
The one thing it cost Polamalu is extended time to get acclimated to Mitchell, who signed a five-year, $25 million contract with the Steelers in March. Polamalu spent the past eight seasons with Clark on the back end of the Steelers' defense. He played his first three seasons with Chris Hope at free safety, so there will be an adjustment period for Polamalu and Mitchell.
"It was great to meet him in person and to be able to work with him," Polamalu said following the Steelers' first minicamp practice Tuesday afternoon. "I'm really excited and it was a great day for us."
Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake agreed.
"I just think they need to spend these three days understanding each other and getting to know each other's personalities," Lake said.
Polamalu also will have to familiarize himself with the other new parts on a defense that the Steelers continue to turn over.
There are three new projected starters this season, including rookie Ryan Shazier at inside linebacker. The additions of Mitchell and Shazier, a first-round pick, have significantly improved the Steelers' speed.
Polamalu said he will withhold judgment -- for now -- on how much getting faster will improve a defense that gave up too many big plays last season.
"We could put Usain Bolt and the whole track team out there, but that doesn't make us a good football team," Polamalu said. "We'll see how everything works out."