Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst on NBC's...

Former Patriots safety Rodney Harrison, now an analyst on NBC's "Sunday Night Football." Credit: NBC

FORT WORTH, Texas - Troy Polamalu earned Defensive Player of the Year honors this season, in part because he models his game after one of the NFL's most prolific safeties of all time.

You'll never guess which one.

Ronnie Lott? Nope.

Rod Woodson? Guess again.

Ed Reed? Try Rodney Harrison, who was labeled the NFL's dirtiest player several times during his career with the Chargers and Patriots. Harrison racked up more than $200,000 in fines, once was suspended for a helmet-to-helmet hit on Jerry Rice, and was suspended the first four games in 2007 for taking a banned substance that violated the NFL's steroids policy.

So why Harrison? Well, it had nothing to do with his reputation as a dirty player, and certainly not because of the fines or suspensions, especially the one for a banned substance.

"He played with a great motor," Polamalu said Wednesday, as the Steelers prepared for Super Bowl XLV against the Packers. "Early in his career, he was labeled as just a run stopper. But later in his career, he was able to do both equally well."

Asked if Polamalu's career was similar - his run-stopping skills were brilliant early, and his range in pass defense has expanded - the Steelers' safety didn't think that was the case.

"No, he has a much better reputation than I do," said Polamalu of Harrison's play. He won two Super Bowls with the Patriots. "He was a leader in that secondary as well. That had a lot to do with the success of that [Patriots] team. Whenever I saw him in person, I definitely made sure to watch."

There's little doubt that Polamalu is the standard by which the Steelers judge. Respected by teammates and coaches for his savvy, hard hits and pass defense, Polamalu is the unquestioned leader of the secondary.

"I've been blessed to play with two of the most amazing athletes ever to play safety, and both ended up to be two of my best friends," Steelers safety Ryan Clark said of Polamalu and former LSU teammate Sean Taylor, who was killed in 2007 while with the Redskins. "Troy is great to work with, and I'm always learning stuff from him."

When Polamalu won the award Monday night, Clark sent him a text. "I wrote, 'You deserve it' and 'I love you.' He texted me back, 'That was our award,' meaning it was for the entire secondary. But it wasn't. That was Troy's. He's an amazing player."

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