Thursday, January 19, 2006
Steelers' Polamalu never out of position _ mostly because he doesn't have one
PITTSBURGH -- Colts quarterback Peyton Manning's arm-waving,
finger-pointing and nonstop gesturing at the line of scrimmage
seemed especially frantic against the Pittsburgh Steelers, and for
After all, what quarterback could possibly be prepared for the
sight of a 5-foot-11 defensive back, especially one whose chaotic
yet passionate play and free-flowing hair have earned him the
nickname of the Tasmanian Devil, lined up at nose tackle?
That's right, nose tackle.
Troy Polamalu, an All-Pro defender who hits like a
miniature-sized linebacker but can drop into deep pass coverage,
presents the most problematic matchup for the Denver Broncos in
Sunday's AFC championship game, just as it did for the Bengals and
Colts before them.
How do they prepare for a one-of-a-kind defender -- a man who is
never out of position because he doesn't really have one? A player
so disruptive that coach Bill Cowher compared drafting him in 2003
to a child opening a special package on Christmas -- he didn't know
for sure what he was getting, but he knew it would be good.
"It was like getting a new toy," Cowher said. "You start
putting him everywhere and anywhere."
Polamalu, a Pro Bowl player in each of his two seasons as a
starter, didn't have any of the Steelers' five sacks of Manning in
Indianapolis yet was one of the players most responsible for the
21-18 upset that sent them to Denver -- even though his
fourth-quarter interception was wrongly overturned after a replay.
The Steelers used Polamalu in so many ways -- bringing him off
the edge as a rush linebacker, slipping him into pass protection or
blitzing him up the middle -- that Manning could be seen looking for
him on nearly every play. The blitzes so disrupted Manning that he
complained afterward about his lack of protection.
"He's a very rare athlete," Steelers defensive coordinator
Dick LeBeau said. "A lot of what we do is because of what he lets
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Polamalu's roommate at
Southern Cal, goes a step further and calls him "the best
defensive player in the league." Patriots coach Bill Belichick
said, "If you don't know where he is, he'll get you."
The Steelers will try to put the same kind of pressure on
Broncos quarterback Jake Plummer that they did on Manning, and
maybe even more so, because they don't fear Plummer's ability to
beat them downfield as they did Manning's. Plummer played a so-so
game in Denver's 27-13 decision over New England -- he was 15-of-26
for 197 yards with one touchdown and an interception -- and may have
to play better if the Broncos are to avoid becoming Pittsburgh's
latest upset victim.
Plummer has seen enough of Polamalu watching video tape this
"He's running around, flying around, just doing some crazy
stuff and making plays," Plummer said. "You have to see where he
is and someone has to account for him because he can cause you
Sometimes, the Steelers will hide Polamalu behind a blitzing
linebacker and ask him to find any seam in the offensive line and
shoot through it. They also will line up with only two down linemen
but five linebackers, three of whom will stack one side of the line
of scrimmage so there aren't enough linemen to block all of them.
Then, Polamalu can be found most anywhere.
"He's unbelievable," Broncos coach Mike Shanahan said. "They
do a great job with their scheme-making, making it very difficult
to figure out where he is, but the rest is him making plays. There
are not many plays where he is not involved, and you can't say that
about many people in the National Football League."
While Polamalu seems to play with reckless abandon, his coaches
say he is very much under control. LeBeau said Polamalu probably
studies more film than anyone. And, a season ago, Polamalu made up
a DVD of other NFL safeties so he could compare their techniques.
It is off the field where Polamalu's personality does not
remotely reflect his on-field image of being a wide-eyed,
modern-day version of Jack Lambert -- albeit with all his teeth. He
dresses much like the college student he was only three years ago
and hasn't cut his hair since then, to honor his Samoan heritage.
His teammates still talk about how he showed up at training camp as
a rookie driving a $12,000 Kia.
He also doesn't socialize much with his teammates, preferring to
stay at home with his wife, Theodora, the sister of Miami Dolphins
tight end Alex Holmes, another former Southern Cal player. His
speaking voice is barely above a whisper, a rarity in a sport where
trash talking is a requisite way of life. And for a player who
speeds along with what Shanahan calls "the highest motor I have
ever seen," Polamalu's off-field interests include flower-growing
and playing the piano.
Polamalu and Broncos cornerback Champ Bailey are regarded by
some NFL coaches as the two best defensive backs in the league, and
whichever player can be more influential may determine the winner.
"When we are moving around, disguising and showing different
looks are the times we're successful," Polamalu said. "I just
feel blessed that I've been put here with coach LeBeau and they
allow me to do the things I do."