A freelancing force who can change a game with a single, electrifying play, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu is the key to the AFC postseason race
This is an article from the Jan. 17, 2011 issue
The boy was a freshman in high school, 5'8" and maybe 135 pounds, every ounce of it speed, muscle and stones. He made the varsity football team at Douglas High in Winston, Ore., and late in the summer his team played in a preseason jamboree against other local clubs. When the boy got his chance to play, he ran down a ballcarrier and threw himself into the tackle with such adolescent force that both kids were knocked silly. Laid the wood to him—that's how his coach, Neil Fuller, would remember it 15 years later. And maybe that's the day people began to realize that Troy Polamalu was a little bit different.
Football is widely ruled by technicians, killjoys and personality police. But artists emerge, and they play the game as if it were jazz and not math. Joe Namath was an artist standing in the pocket, with white shoes and a quick release. Dick Butkus was an artist in pursuit of mayhem, forearms at the ready. Barry Sanders was an artist working in tight space, like liquid on cleats. They executed, but they also entertained. Polamalu, the eighth-year strong safety of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is their descendant, turning defense into a form of expressionism.
Late on Saturday afternoon at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, the Steelers, champions of the AFC North with a 12--4 record, will open their playoff run by hosting their bitter rivals, the Ravens. The 29-year-old Polamalu will be the most dynamic player on the field. He will blitz from the line of scrimmage, defend passes 50 yards into the secondary and tackle running backs from sideline to sideline for a Steelers' defense that allowed just 62.8 rushing yards—a staggering 27 less than the second-best run defense—and a league-low 14.5 points per game.
Polamalu will do all of this in a frantic and unpredictable manner, as if he were playing a sandlot game with friends. "I never know where Troy is going to be lined up," says Steelers linebacker James Farrior, who receives the defensive signals from coordinator Dick LeBeau and calls them in the huddle. And Polamalu will do it with a distinguishing riot of curly black hair falling from the back of his helmet in a way that only accentuates his urgency and brands his performance like the signature at the bottom of a painting.
The artistry might look like this: On the last Sunday of the NFL regular season the Cleveland Browns lined up first-and-goal at the Steelers' two-yard line. Seven Pittsburgh defenders fanned across the line of scrimmage, with the four others positioned in a line five yards behind them, Polamalu on the outside right. As Browns quarterback Colt McCoy shouted cadence, Polamalu shuffled two steps sideways and then bolted toward McCoy while the other 21 players remained frozen. Just as the ball was snapped, Polamalu launched himself over the top of Browns center Alex Mack and left guard Shawn Lauvao. Mack rose and flipped Polamalu into the air as he narrowly missed grabbing McCoy's jersey. "That one," says Farrior, "is definitely not in the playbook."
(It probably should be. Fifteen weeks earlier Polamalu did the same thing—the Titans had first-and-goal from the one when Polamalu, anticipating the snap count, leaped over guard Leroy Harris to sack quarterback Kerry Collins for a two-yard loss.)
Or the artwork might look like this: On Dec. 12 Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer threw a slant to Terrell Owens. Polamalu, positioned 20 yards deep in the secondary, sliced in front of T.O., intercepted the pass and ran it back 45 yards for a touchdown, breaking the plane of the goal line while soaring parallel to the ground outside the field and reaching back inside with the ball. "There's no defensive player in the history of the NFL who has had the freedom Troy Polamalu has right now," says Rodney Harrison, former All-Pro safety and current NBC analyst.
That freedom begins with the singular construct of the player. The passion Polamalu showed as a high schooler in Oregon (where he moved from Southern California around age eight to live with his aunt and uncle, and where, says Polamalu, "If the jayvee had a game, we didn't have enough people left for a scrimmage") has never ebbed. As a freshman at USC in 1999, he stripped a running back of the ball on the first day of live contact. "From Day One he had this knack for running to the ball and just tackling people," says Bill Young, Polamalu's first defensive coordinator at USC. "Most players will find the ball and then [get set for the tackle] slowly, because they're afraid to commit and get embarrassed. Troy just went straight to the ball."
The Steelers drafted Polamalu with the 16th pick in 2003. As a young player he attacked hard and was frequently burned. "Teams used it against him," says Kennedy Pola, Polamalu's uncle and a longtime college and NFL coach who is currently the USC offensive coordinator. "His second year, AFC championship against New England: pretty ugly." In that game the Patriots employed double moves and play action against Polamalu and the top-seeded Steelers, slicing up the league's No. 1 defense in a 41--27 upset win.
Eventually, Polamalu grew comfortable in LeBeau's complex, zone blitz--heavy 3--4 defense. And LeBeau learned how to employ this distinctive athlete, a 5'10", 207-pound coil of power with a 43-inch vertical leap. "He's got stop-to-start acceleration that's second to none," says LeBeau. "He can blitz, he can play at the line of scrimmage against the run. He can tackle in the open field to keep big plays from becoming bigger plays. He's a great pass defender. And he's got great football instincts."
Deception is vital to any defensive scheme. LeBeau uses Polamalu's versatility to confuse offenses, allowing his safety to line up virtually anywhere on the field as long as Polamalu can perform his assigned task on the play. "He gives us better looks with his instincts than we could ever choreograph," says LeBeau. "So we encourage him to do that." As Polamalu has grown into the safety position, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls and sustained a team identity forged through defense.
But Polamalu's freelancing ferocity can exact a price. He has missed 21 games in the last five seasons, including 11 last year with a knee injury. "People close to Troy have talked to him about sacrificing his body," says Pola. And when Polamalu goes down, the Steelers are diminished. In the 2009 opener he had six tackles and an interception in the first half against the Titans before spraining his left MCL. Pittsburgh was 5--6 in the games he missed and failed to make the playoffs. This year Polamalu sat out a Dec. 19 game against the Jets with a strained Achilles tendon, and the Steelers gave up a season-high 106 yards on the ground in a 22--17 loss. "He sees thing and makes plays that nobody else makes," says Steelers' veteran backup quarterback Charlie Batch. "You can't substitute for that."
When he's on the field, quarterbacks are uniformly challenged. "Not too many guys in the league start out on the line of scrimmage and then play the deep zone in Cover Two," says Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. When Fitzpatrick was with the Bengals, Palmer (who remains close friends with Polamalu from their days together at USC) told his teammate, "If Troy rotates down into the curl zone in Cover Three, don't throw anything over there. Don't throw the comeback. Don't throw the out. Because he can get to all of them."
To illustrate Polamalu's technique, Saints quarterback Drew Brees squatted like a defensive back, statue-still, arms dangling. "This is what he looks like on every play," says Brees. "He doesn't give anything away."
Matt Schaub of the Texans said, "What does Polamalu do best? He guesses. He's got confidence that his front seven is going to get pressure on the quarterback, so he's not afraid to attack any area of the field. And he winds up right a lot of the time."
The artist, though, struggles to accept descriptions of his art. Ten days before the Steelers' postseason opener Polamalu stood next to his corner dressing cubicle (the one previously occupied by Jerome Bettis) at the team complex on Pittsburgh's South Side. "All the stuff about freedom," Polamalu said, "I can honestly say there's been one time in eight years when I just did whatever I wanted to do on a play. [That was the leaping sack on Collins.] The rest of the time I have a responsibility. Now, if I can see that there's no threat in my area of responsibility, that's where the creativity comes in."
These decisions come not just from some indefinable instinct, but also from endless video study, the attribute that seems to link every elite player in the NFL on either side of the ball. The leap at McCoy? "Based on their tendencies, down and distance, it was almost 100 percent run, away from me," says Polamalu. "So I had no pass responsibility." (McCoy indeed rolled out away from Polamalu's side after eluding the tackle and wound up throwing an incomplete pass into the right corner of the end zone.) The Collins sack, Polamalu says, was "a complete guess."
The pick on Palmer? "That was a team defensive play. [Cornerback] Bryant McFadden undercut T.O. and messed up their timing." Another of Polamalu's signature plays from this season was his killing strip-sack on the Ravens' Joe Flacco, the turnover that led to the Steelers' critical 13--10 victory on Dec. 5. That one, says Polamalu, "was totally Coach LeBeau's call."
And now, says Polamalu, opponents have become so suspicious of where he lines up that he has begun moving around less. "Cat-and-mouse," he says. "Quarterbacks have gotten to the point where they see me and think, 'He's not going to stay there.' Sometimes I'll bite on a pattern once, when I know our rush is going to get home, just so the quarterback will expect me to do it the next time."
If the instincts and preparation are one element of Polamalu's game, his tenacity is another. "I've never coached a player with his passion," says Greg Burns, Polamalu's position coach in his senior year at USC. "He wasn't vocal, but he was relentless."
When games are finished, he is neither. "You watch him play, and he's this true warrior," says Fitzpatrick. "And then you shake hands with him on the field afterward, and he talks so softly that you can hardly hear him."
In practice Polamalu plays not only with the starting defense but also, when possible, the scout team as well. "Twice as many reps to look at," he says. "It's like I've been playing 16 years instead of eight." It is rare duty for a superstar, served enthusiastically, and to hear the man tell it himself, desperately needed.
"You asked me about the freedom," says Polamalu. "What that really means is that I have more freedom than anybody else to make mistakes. And then my teammates cover them up. You wouldn't believe how many mistakes I make."
Even if that is true, the beauty lies in the chances taken and the moments made.
Peter King's breakdown of the four divisional-round matchups, at SI.com/nfl