Friday, October 22, 2010

Safety Troy Polamalu A Danger To Pittsburgh's Opponents

There goes Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, using his uncanny instincts to leap, Superman style, and sack the quarterback an instant after the ball is snapped.

And there's Polamalu again, reaching back to snare an impossible one-handed interception, the ball stuck like Velcro in his grasp.

Polamalu, among the NFL's best defensive players, is everywhere on the field — and the Steelers (4-1) are back in a familiar spot, atop the AFC North as one of the league's three one-loss teams.
The man with the cartoonish large pouf of jet-black hair cascading across his shoulders conjures a different type of cartoon for wary opponents.

"He's like 'Where's Waldo?'" Tampa Bay Coach Raheem Morris said recently. "You've got to know where he is on the field."

Miami will certainly be keeping tabs. The Dolphins play host to Pittsburgh on Sunday and will be especially aware of playing keep-away from Polamalu as they try to get the ball into the hands of star receiver Brandon Marshall.

How much of a game-changer is the former USC safety? Consider that the Steelers won three of their first four games this season without the services of suspended quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, yet were completely lost last season when Polamalu was sidelined with a knee injury. He makes that kind of impact.

The 16th overall pick in the 2003 draft, Polamalu is on a collision course with Canton and is among an elite collection of All-Pro NFL players to emerge from Los Angeles schools in the past two-plus decades — a group that includes USC's Junior Seau and Tony Boselli, and UCLA's Troy Aikman.

So what separates Polamalu from other safeties? A few experts on the position make their case.

NBC's Rodney Harrison, another two-time All-Pro safety, calls Polamalu "the defensive Randy Moss" for his ability to pull down any pass in his area code.

"I've never seen a guy make so many one-handed interceptions," Harrison said. "Every time that ball hits his hands. I don't care if it's one-handed, if it's behind him, if it's on the sideline, he's going to catch it and he's going to make sure he taps his feet."

Steelers fans won't soon forget the leaning, left-handed pick Polamalu made against Tennessee in last year's opener, a candidate for the most spectacular defensive play of the year.


One of the reasons the Steelers can get so creative with Polamalu, nudging him close to the line of scrimmage or deep in the defensive backfield, is his ability to cover ground so quickly.

"He's got feet like a running back," said NBC's Tony Dungy, a Super Bowl-winning coach and a former Pittsburgh defensive back. "He's not off balance very much, he can change directions quickly, and he's hard to knock off his feet when you're trying to block him.

"His feet allow him to stay in position and not miss many tackles."


Harrison says the Steelers safety has such a good feel for what's about to happen, it's as if he has "football ESP." Hall of Fame safety Rod Woodson, also a former Pittsburgh star, said those instincts allow Polamalu to bend the rules a bit in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's system.
"I remember when I was with Coach LeBeau in Pittsburgh, and he would always tell us not to turn our back to the ball," said Woodson, an NFL Network analyst. "Well, heck, Troy always turns his back to the ball. I asked Coach, 'Why do you let him do it?' And Coach said, 'Because he can.'

"I think that's an indication of how good he is as an athlete, knowing where he wants to go, and over the years becoming a student of the game. When we first saw Troy come into the league, he was kind of just a kamikaze guy. He was all over the place but wasn't making a whole bunch of plays, he'd miss some tackles. But what he's done the last three years, he's taken his game to the next level."


As wild as he is on the field, Polamalu is remarkably humble and soft-spoken away from it.

"I don't think football comes naturally to me," he said. "I'm not like [Baltimore linebacker] Ray Lewis that can go out there and say, 'I'm the beast of the field. I own this field.' I'm more or less fighting out of fear."

That has inspired Polamalu to go to extremes when training in the off-season, including going on long runs in the middle of the night "to get my body used to things it doesn't want to do."

He and his wife are devout Eastern Orthodox Christians, and he weaves his spirituality into every facet of his life. That includes what he calls "spiritual workouts," or pushing himself to the point of total fatigue — then beyond.

For example, he has tested himself at a gym near his La Jolla home by turning a treadmill up to maximum speed, then sprinting on it as long as he possibly can until collapsing off it in a heap.

"You're pushing yourself beyond a limit where it stops working on you physically, and it starts working on your spirit," he said.

"As an athlete, if you're able to push yourself to those limits, it can give you a certain confidence. That doesn't come out of pride or ego, it comes out of humility.

"I know this guy's pushing himself hard. I know he works out eight hours a day. So I have to do something more than him in order to compete."

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