Polamalu is fiercely respected
FORT WORTH, Texas - Playing defense requires teamwork and trust. Someone has to take on a blocker to keep another player free to make a tackle. You need to know - not think, know - that if you let a receiver leave your zone, he'll be picked up. Defense is not a one-man show.
Well, not usually. Steelers safety Ryan Clark noted the exception:
"There are games where we say, 'No one do anything special, everybody just do your job . . . except for you, Troy.' "
Troy, of course, is Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu, who is so hard to miss with his iconic black hair and yet so difficult for offenses to find because of his unpredictable versatility.
In a Super Bowl that will feature the last three AP Defensive Players of the Year - James Harrison and Charles Woodson won the previous two - Polamalu, who won the award for 2010 this week, might be the most dynamic defender on the field come Sunday.
"He's probably the most instinctive player I've ever had," said Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who has been in the game for nearly a half-century and is a Hall of Famer. "He has the amazing capability of studying film and being able to instantly apply that in the game situation. A lot of guys can get down to tendencies, formation, motion, but when it comes to pulling the trigger, they do OK. Troy is exceptional. That's why he makes so many big plays."
Polamalu missed two games this season (the Steelers went 1-1 in those games, including a loss to the Jets) but finished with 63 tackles and seven interceptions. It was the flashy plays by the soft-spoken player, however, that garnered him the attention and the votes to win this year's award.
His leap-over-the-offensive-line-in-a-single-bound tackle of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco forced a fumble that set up the winning touchdown in a December game and helped the Steelers capture the division title.
"Any time you play against a guy like that who really understands the game, is a reactionary guy, makes a quick decision and goes at it 100 miles an hour, you realize he is a very special player," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said. "It's going to be important to figure out where he is every play and try to get a feel for if they're going to use him in their pressure packages or more in their coverage stuff as the game goes on."
So far in the playoffs, it's been more coverage. Polamalu has seven tackles but no sacks in the Steelers' two wins. He also has no interceptions and no official passes defensed. That isn't bugging him, though.
"We're winning games," he said. "If I'm not heard, I'm happy as long as we're winning games."
Polamalu is rarely heard from in a verbal sense. He is a quiet figure with a shy disposition. He said he "felt nothing" when he was named Defensive Player of the Year, gave all the credit to his teammates and even suggested that Packers linebacker Clay Matthews should have won.
On the field, he is a ferocious hitter and, according to several players, a bit of a trash-talker. But while other players who deliver wince-inducing blows often find themselves fined or flagged and develop a reputation for nosing up to the line of sportsmanship - Steelers teammate Harrison, for example - Polamalu is respected just as much for the quality of his person as his quality of play.
"I try to represent something bigger than myself, whether it's on the football field or off the football field, and to represent the same person," Polamalu said. "I wouldn't be somebody that's a 'rah-rah, look at me' guy on the field and not off the field, or vice versa. I think if you see people like that, there's something that's not authentic in their life. They're either fake outside the football field or fake on the football field. I just try to be the same person."