Troy Polamalu is a gambler.
He has made a living in the NFL as a safety willing to push the envelope for a shot at a big play. His career highlight-reel is full of eye-popping moments -- timing the snap and flying over the line, leaping in front of a receiver for a sprawling interception. Polamalu has long been arguably the most important part of Pittsburgh's defense, and he may be headed for a spot in Canton down the line.
But he, like just about every other defender in the league, has had some very rough days against Tom Brady.
The Patriots' QB made Polamalu's life miserable again Sunday, taking advantage of overaggressive play to hang 55 points on Pittsburgh's D, the most that unit had ever allowed in its history. Brady started the onslaught by turning Polamalu inside-out on a TD pass to Danny Amendola, and neither Polamalu nor his defensive teammates ever really recovered.
Backed up inside their own 35 in the first quarter, the Steelers rolled safety Ryan Clark up close to the line with New England showing a three-receiver, one-tight end set. That move left Polamalu deep essentially in a Cover-One, meaning he was responsible for the entire width of the field behind the defense.
Brady took the snap and shifted his body right, toward a streaking Julian Edelman (red box below). Polamalu took the bait and began cheating in Edelman's direction, looking for an interception ... and leaving Danny Amendola uncovered to Brady's left.
By the time Brady shuffled his feet to turn toward Amendola, Polamalu was too far gone to make an impact. And it's hard to even say why he felt the need to drift in Edelman's direction, other than a hope of making a spectacular play. Edelman was bracketed by two Steelers, one underneath and one deep; on the other side of the field, the Steelers' second level of defenders allowed two receivers -- Amendola and Aaron Dobson -- to release long. With Polamalu out of position, it turned into a 2-on-1 in New England's favor.
That's way too easy for Tom Brady -- and a perfect example of how Brady's ability to move defenders with his eyes can unglue an anxious defender, like Polamalu. Odds are that Brady never intended to throw Edelman's direction on this play. Rather, his main goal in looking that way was to clear space for Amendola.
Polamalu was all to eager to comply.
(GIF via @gifdsports)
The problems didn't end there for Polamalu and the Pittsburgh secondary. Later, Polamalu again was the deep safety on a Brady touchdown pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski.
On that play, the Steelers used rookie linebacker Jarvis Jones in man-coverage on Gronkowski -- a horrible matchup, even with Jones being an athletic defender. Polamalu actually read this particular Brady pass correctly, breaking just a second after the snap in Gronkowski's direction. In fact, before Gronkowski even turned to look for the football, Polamalu was en route, with his eyes locked on Brady.
So what happened?
Well, two noticeable occurrences: 1. Brady dropped in a beautiful pass to Gronkowski, over Jones' arms and to the outside shoulder of his tight end; 2. Polamalu flattened out his path to the play at about the five-yard-line, trying to peel back in coverage rather than continuing to drive on the football.
Was that the product of Polamalu thinking he did not have enough time to get over for an interception? (And if that's the case, how much of an indictment is it on the 32-year-old Polamalu, who was injured for most of 2012?) Or did he take himself out of position with his inital break, thus leaving him unable to recover for a pass break-up?
Whatever the answer, Brady again victimized him for a touchdown.
A second long pass to Amendola may have been as much Clark's fault as it was Polamalu's, but it again displayed the confusion and disconnect created in Pittsburgh's secondary Sunday.
This time, the Patriots had three receivers run routes into a compacted area: Aaron Dobson (top), Edelman (arrow) and Amendola (boxed in red). As Amendola broke down the middle of the field, Polamalu yelled to Clark and pointed in Amendola's direction, then turned back to help William Gay cover Dobson.
Clark, meanwhile, ducked underneath on Edelman, clearing the entire field for Amendola.
When Brady's pass arrived there wasn't a Steeler within 10 yards of the Patriots' receiver. And just like on the earlier Amendola TD reception, it is fair to wonder where exactly Polamalu was headed here. No doubt he and Clark miscommunicated in the middle of the field, but just as on that touchdown, Polamalu paid extra attention to a covered receiver and left an island free for another option.
As remarkable a player as Polamalu is (and even in this difficult outing, he made a terrific move to force a Steven Ridley fumble), the truth is that Brady is a poor matchup for him.
Even when Polamalu managed to stay at home, as on the play seen below, Brady's manipulation from the pocket wrecked Polamalu's plan.
Polamalu broke toward the middle of the field and Gronkowski, reversed course and backpedeled left, then shifted right again and tried to make a play on the ball. The result: A pass interference penalty, with Polamalu unable to pick the correct direction.