Not a year goes by without the accolades for Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He, along with Baltimore's Ed Reed, has been called the best safety of his generation, one of the most dynamic players in the league's history and many other fine things.
But how does Polamalu, who's been with the Steelers since they traded up to draft him in 2003, fit into the history of his own team? While he is most certainly the best defensive back the team has had recently, is he the best ever?
To figure that out, we have to take a little trip down memory lane and look at the other safeties and even defensive backs that have been on the team throughout the years.
Let's start with some vitals on Polamalu. He's been to seven Pro Bowls in nine seasons, won two Super Bowls and has been an All-Pro five times. He's made 607 tackles, nine sacks and 29 interceptions.
The previous gold standard for a Pittsburgh defensive back was Rod Woodson, who played in Pittsburgh from 1987 through 1996. During that time, Woodson made seven Pro Bowls, was an All-Pro six times and played in one Super Bowl (Super Bowl XXX). He grabbed 38 interceptions, made 13.5 sacks and recorded 644 tackles.
While Woodson would later play safety, he never did while in Pittsburgh. His numbers came as a corner.
The previous strong safety to have consistent success was Carnell Lake. Lake now serves as the team's defensive backs coach and he oversaw a stunning turnaround last season. Lake was with the Steelers from 1989 to 1998 and played mostly at strong safety before shifting out to corner toward the end of his career.
Lake made four Pro Bowls with the Steelers, was an All-Pro selection four times and played in Super Bowl XXX. In a decade with Pittsburgh, he grabbed 16 interceptions, made 21.5 sacks and recorded 677 tackles.
Polamalu is well-known for getting after quarterbacks and disrupting plays in the backfield, but he's only recorded nine sacks in nine years. By contrast, Lake recorded 21.5 in only one more season. It's unlikely Polamalu will ever catch up to that.
Woodson has more interceptions, but he did that at a different position with more opportunities to cover wide receivers and grab interceptions. Polamalu's interception numbers are very favorable when compared with Lake's.
Tackles isn't necessarily a definitive measure, but for a defensive back who makes plays, you want to see high numbers. Polamalu is right on par with Lake and Woodson.
So where does that put him in team history? Despite the evidence that he is basically in a dead heat statistically with either Lake or Woodson, I would say that Polamalu is the best defensive back the team has ever had.
What statistic is more important in evaluating a defensive back?
While detractors will talk about the fact that he can be drawn into mistakes by smart quarterbacks or by bad guesses on his own part, and the fact that he has shown a propensity for injuries in recent years, I don't think you can discount that he's one of the league's best-ever athletes and that he has a style all his own.
Neither Lake nor Woodson had a talent or style that transcended the game. Polamalu, in many ways, has changed the way that the safety position is played and also how it is viewed. Teams are more and more apt to have a roving defensive back who can make different types of plays. He changed the role from mostly coverage to having a pass-rushing focus as well.
The only thing I can take away from Polamalu is that he's had more of an opportunity to distance himself from Woodson or Lake than you might think. Passing is more prevalent in today's game, yet Polamalu hasn't shown a marked difference in statistics.
While that may take him down a peg, he is certainly a more important player to the league and to his team than anyone preceding him. With plenty of years left in the tank, he should be able to finish his career as one of the best defensive backs in the history of the NFL, as well as the absolute best ever to put on the black and gold.