The five-time Pro Bowler played the position at a very high level for 12 years with the Dallas Cowboys. He has won three Super Bowls and now is a football analyst for ESPN.
The AFC North blog caught up with Woodson this week to get his insight on our always interesting "Troy Reed" debate and what makes both players so special.
Darren, let's start with your breakdown of each safety.
Woodson: Ed is in the middle of the field probably 90 percent of the time. So basically he's the quarterback of the defense, making calls in the secondary, and he's the guy we would call the "windshield wiper." What's impressive about him is being able to cover sideline-to-sideline and having the range that he does. I don't think I've ever seen anybody in history at that position who has the range that Ed Reed has. What makes him special is he's able to read route combinations. Whatever Reed sees, he believes. He has so much confidence in his own abilities that when he sees something, he's going to take a chance, and that's what you don't see with a lot of free safeties. ...
I think Polamalu is probably the best anticipator in the league. Polamalu is a guy who, with everything that's in front of him, he has that ability to make a play. If he's seeing the quarterback, he's able to react, whether it's making a tackle or getting an interception. That's what he's special at. And one thing I don't think people realize about Troy is he's a [great] athlete. It's almost like when Junior Seau first came in the league, where he's jumping over guys and making interceptions. They are so similar in that way, where if the ball is in the air, or it's a tipped ball, Troy has a way of coming up with that play. He has great hands and an innate ability to be around the football all the time. His blitzing, timing the blitz and knowing the cadence of the quarterback -- you have to be in that film room all day long trying to memorize a quarterback's habits. I don't think there's a better blitzer from the safety or defensive backs position than Polamalu. Charles Woodson is a great blitzer. But Troy Polamalu, the timing that he has on those blitzes is impeccable.
It's pretty clear Reed and Polamalu are different types of safeties. Considering you played the position for a dozen years, which style is more difficult?
Woodson: Well, I think Ed's position is easier to play, because there's never really any coverage responsibility. He's free 90 percent of the time and he’s not covering anybody. He's the free guy. Troy’s situation is different, because they ask him to do so much. The Steelers will ask Troy to cover a slot receiver at times. They'll ask him to blitz. But I think that puts Troy in a position to make more plays than Ed.
Any comparisons you can make with past players to these two safeties?
Woodson: Let's see, starting with Ed. Who is a middle-of-the-field free safety I could compare him to? I think to [former San Francisco standout] Merton Hanks. He's a guy from the corner position who moved to the free safety position and would get interceptions. I think Ed is 10 times better than Merton. But as far as playmakers, both of them were always around the ball. Troy? As a safety? Man, he's unique. [Former Niners star] Ronnie Lott was more of a hitter. But I think as far as a game-changer, you can probably compare him to Ronnie Lott.
Polamalu and Reed are now considered the NFL prototypes, but they've been in the league for a while. Why, in the past seven or eight years, has there not been another safety like Polamalu or Reed to come along?
Woodson: Because I think their talents are that much better than everyone else who's come through the league. They're also in the perfect situation. When you talk about these two guys, you have to look at the defenses as a whole first. These are two extremely aggressive defenses that are always in attack mode. Most defenses aren't always in attack mode the way these two defenses are. So they're playing on two teams that fit their styles. Ed is always in the middle of the field and he can go from sideline to sideline. He fits that type of lane and that’s a benefit to him. Troy, the Steelers are always in attack mode, too. But Troy is always in the box for eight-man fronts. He can shadow underneath and make a play that way. I think the systems really benefit what they do and make them that much better football players. If you put these two guys on different teams, say you put Ed Reed on St. Louis, will he be the same guy? Probably not. But he's still going to make plays because of his ability, and Troy being the same way.
Last question and this might be the toughest one. If you had to pick one safety to start your defense with, who would it be, Reed or Polamalu?
Woodson: Whew! That is a good one. [Long pause.] Man. ...that's a hard one to answer. I would probably say Ed Reed to start a defense with. Because Ed is a guy who will always make a play on the ball. He has the best hand-eye coordination I've ever seen. And the hardest thing for a safety or a defensive back is when the ball is in the air, you're trying to find that ball. It's like Willie Mays making that basket catch. It's hard to run one way, then run backward, and then find the receiver and the ball at the same time. No doubt about it, I've never seen anybody do that like Ed Reed. So as far as changing the game, I would probably start my defense with Ed Reed, to be honest with you. I know I can put him in any situation. I know I can put him on any team, and he will be the free safety in the middle of the field who makes plays on the ball. Now, Troy, it will be a little different. If you put him in a conventional defense, he’s probably not going to be the same guy.
So there you have it from one of the best NFL safeties of the past 20 years. If Woodson could only choose one safety for his defense, he's going with Reed.
Here are other opinions on both Pro Bowl safeties from this week:
"I don't know if there’s that much of a difference. They both play the game with great instincts. They both prepare incredibly [well] and they just love the game. They love the game. And those are the two few safeties that actually turn the game into an offensive possession when they do have the ball in their hands. And, I think that’s what makes both of those guys who they are – Ed and Troy. It's an honor watching both of them play. It's not really [an honor] watching him play when he's playing against us, but it's a real honor to sit back and watch, probably, two of the best safeties to ever play this game go at it."
Ravens coach John Harbaugh
"One thing I think about these two safeties is they have unbelievable hands. These are two guys that just have a great ability to catch the football, and that gives them a chance to make plays on the ball downfield. They make great catches, so they get turnovers. They’re both hitters, they both are very instinctive, they both know the game inside and-out."
"Totally different players. Troy mixes it up a little bit more. Ed is the consummate ballhawk. Troy has ball-hawking skills, but Troy is a box guy. Troy plays in the middle of the field and plays near the linebackers. I think Ed is a true, true free safety."