The 2019 season didn't go the way the Pittsburgh Steelers hoped it would. Almost instantly the campaign for another Lombardi Trophy was dashed after franchise quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suffered a season-ending elbow injury in Week 2. From there, Mason Rudolph and Devlin Hodges volleyed for time under center, but neither could take the reins and put Pittsburgh into the playoffs.
The bright spot, however, came on the defensive side of the ball as the head coach Mike Tomlin was able to turn the group into a formidable opponent, finishing the year ranked third in the NFL in DVOA. The Steelers defense also led the league with 38 total takeaways.
"It was obviously a very tough start for them," former Steelers safety Troy Polamalu told CBS Sports HQ on Friday, referencing Roethlisberger's season-ending injury. "I think it was really great for the defense to perform the way they did. I believe the success of the Steelers organization is dependent on the culture within the locker room, team leadership and the performance of the defense. That's been the key to our success, that's been the key to success of the Steelers of the '70s and just something that permeates the aura of the city. Blue collar. This is all through culture and this is all through defense, so I'm really happy the defense performed the way it did late in the season. I'm really happy with the team leadership and how that culture has changed and really kind of brought that to fruition.
"Obviously with the addition of Ben [Roethlisberger] and hopefully a lot more talent coming on the offensive side that they'll be able to make a good run next year."
One of the big reasons for Pittsburgh's success on defense and promise for a more competitive 2020 season is thanks to the early-season acquisition of safety Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Steelers shipped their 2019 first-round pick to Miami for the Pro Bowl safety as part of a deal that also involved two Day 3 picks on each side, and he provided immediate results. In 14 games played for Pittsburgh, Fitzpatrick totaled five interceptions, nine passes defended and 57 tackles.
"I think he's a tremendous safety, and I think that was a really great move for the organization," Polamalu said of Fitzpatrick. "Anytime you have a defensive-led team, that sort of turnover is so huge. For him to come up with [five] interceptions ... Man, it's hard to come up with interceptions generally in the league. For him to be able to do that, I think, is really awesome and has been a key to the success of the defense."
Of course, the big news surrounding Polamalu is his potential call to the Hall of Fame on Saturday prior to Super Bowl LIV. This is the legendary safety's first time on the ballot, and he appears to have a strong case to make it to Canton. While he's humbled at the opportunity to possibly put on a gold jacket, he looks at this Hall of Fame enshrinement as a tribute to the guys he played alongside.
"To me, it's more of a tribute to my teammates than anything," Polamalu said of the Hall of Fame. "I really am not [nervous] because, to me, it's not about me. It's about my teammates and I'm really happy I'm able to pay tribute to them even as being selected as a finalist."
Polamalu spent his entire NFL career with the Steelers and has won two Super Bowl titles with the organization, while being named to the Pro Bowl eight times, was the Defensive Player of the Year in 2010 and is a member of the Steelers All-Time Team.