For Pittsburgh Steelers' safety Troy Polamalu, there seems to be no end to the number of surprising and unbelievable ways to make a big play. There's just no safety in the NFL like Polamalu and he may be one of those once in a generation players that redefines how a position is played.
During a career that started with his selection in the first round of the 2003 draft, Polamalu has had enough highlights to make a feature-length movie. Here are his ten best.
In a game, there are a handful of plays that don't score points or even prevent them directly but that are vastly important to the outcome. This play is one of those and deserves mention as one of the biggest plays of Polamalu's career because of the way it was executed and because of the importance of the game in which it occurred.
This was the 2008 AFC Championship Game against the hated rivals from Baltimore. This game was tight all the way, but Polamalu made a couple of huge plays that basically assured the Steelers of victory.
This was the first (you'll see the biggest one later). The Ravens were on the march early in the game and looked like they were going to start chipping away at their early deficit. With a steady drive in which Joe Flacco finally seemed to get some rhythm, the Steelers needed a big stop.
They got one.
It was a 4th and 1 and John Harbaugh decided to go for it. The game was too important to punt here even if it was early. Joe Flacco was to make the push behind a big offensive line. He never got there. Polamalu made a signature move by leaping over the line right at the snap, grabbing Flacco and holding him back and pulling him down.
That failed conversion allowed the Steelers to hang onto an early lead and push for more as they made their march toward Super Bowl XLIII.
Timing a snap count is a specialty of Polamalu's. It's one of the things that makes him so special. He finds a way to make his move just as the ball is snapped. This has the effect of throwing an offense into disarray because players don't have any time to make an adjustment.
In this clip, slowed way down by the make to show just how deft he is, Polamalu not only times the snap count correctly but also slips slyly between two offensive linemen. They barely have time to think fast enough to touch him and slow him down before he's in the backfield.
Once he's in the backfield, Seneca Wallace has absolutely no chance of doing anything but going down. This actually looks like it might have been a running play by the way it is unfolding, but it goes down as a big negative.
Looking at the slow-moving film, you can see that Polamalu has his hands on Wallace before the quarterback has completely stepped away from under center and made his turn. That's a recipe for disaster and a play that only one or two players in NFL history could have made.
If there's a rookie quarterback who sits around hoping to face the Pittsburgh Steelers defense, I'd like to meet him and ask if he needs his head examined. No one takes more pleasure in welcoming rookies and baptizing them by fire than the Steelers. They do the same with veterans the first time they come in for a visit as well.
In 2010, a season full of highlights for Troy Polamalu, he got to be part of the welcoming committee for new Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan. While he had earned the nickname "Matty Ice" during his first season, he got iced by Polamalu during his first action of 2010.
With Ben Roethlisberger suspended for four games and the Steelers and Falcons battling to a tie (nothing new for a team that did just that during the 2002 regular season when Tommy Maddox went head to head with Michael Vick). Field goal kickers ruled the day.
With the score knotted and less than two minutes to go, Ryan targeted Roddy White, his top receiver, and attempted to hit him on a sideline pattern. Polamalu somehow snuck in front and took away the ball while keeping his feet on the field and in bounds.
While the interception didn't exactly win the game, it may have prevented a loss. The Steelers would go on to win in overtime.
The video of this play, dusted off from the 2004 archives, seems like an episode of "Before They Were Stars." It features young Troy Polamalu before he was the unbelievable, game-changing force he is today. It came during the second home game for rookie Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. The play comes against a young, still-developing Carson Palmer.
Much has been made of the relationship between the now-Oakland quarterback and the Steelers' safety.
Polamalu has given Palmer fits over the years and this was perhaps the first time he felt the sting of what his former college teammate and roommate could do to an opponent's chances of victory.
It was a tight game in a season already beset by difficulties. Leading 21-17 late, the Steelers had the Bengals pinned down deep in Cincinnati territory. Instead of allowing Palmer and his mates to gain any ground, however, Polamalu slammed the door.
He stepped up, took away a pass and then started cutting back across the field to run as far as he could. In the end, he score a touchdown by bowling over Carson Palmer.
The storyline continues here with Troy Polamalu once again victimizing his USC roommate. This time, it happened in 2010 with the Steelers, 9-3 before this game, marching their way to the playoffs and a Super Bowl appearance as the Bengals fell to pieces once again.
This was another tight game at the time, however. The Steelers trailed 7-0 and hadn't been able to get themselves on track. Palmer and the Bengals weren't backing down and wanted nothing more than to give the Steelers a kick in the teeth.
Instead, Polamalu changed the game with another big play. This time, he stepping in front of the quixotic Terrell Owens and took away a Palmer pass. This one he took back to the house as well, dashing down the sideline before almost going out of bounds.
He made a diving, momentum-defying leap that put the ball safely in the end zone before he tumbled down on the sideline. It was part of a two-interception effort for the Pittsburgh safety. It also ensured that the Steelers would improve to 10-3 and continue their march.
Nothing defines a player's legacy quite so much as the play to send a team to a Super Bowl. Perhaps the only thing more remarkable is a play that wins the Super Bowl. Polamalu hasn't done that yet in his career, but this play was of the former variety. He sent the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII with an interception and touchdown that may just be the greatest play at Heinz Field thus far.
The 2008 season was another of those slug matches between the Steelers and the Ravens. The Steelers won the AFC North and, as their encore, got to host the Ravens in the AFC Championship Game.
Late in the game, with only a few minutes remaining, the Steelers were clinging to a 16-14 lead. The Ravens were on the march and things looked to be getting dicey. The Steelers were still on the Baltimore side of the field, but the tension was thick enough to slice with a knife.
That all changed when Polamalu took a Joe Flacco pass and dashed back across the field and into the end zone for the touchdown that put the Steelers firmly in the driver's seat.
There is perhaps no more important play in his career, but there have been a few that are just more athletic and unbelievable.
The measure of a great player is usually how well he plays when the game is on the line against the most ferocious rival of his team. Polamalu has made a career out of terrorizing the Baltimore Ravens and Cincinnati Bengals, two of the Steelers' biggest rivals.
Since Mike Tomlin and John Harbaugh have become the coaches of the Steelers and Ravens, this rivalry, already hot for years thanks to people like Ray Lewis and Joey Porter, got even more heated. The contests are routinely punctuated by close scores and last-second field goals.
In this game, late in the 2010 season, Polamalu provided the game-winning theatrics by surging over the left side of the Ravens offensive line and circling in behind Joe Flacco. Instead of simply sacking him, Polamalu delivered a chop to his throwing arm just as he was getting ready to unload.
The result was a key fumble that, once recovered by the Steelers, meant that the black and gold would win the game. It also set them up for winning the AFC North by pushing the Ravens back in the standings. Finally, it set up a rematch at Heinz Field in the playoffs that would also end with a Pittsburgh victory.
2010 was an interesting season for the Steelers. Polamalu was coming off one of his worst campaigns, an injury-filled 2009 that saw him miss most of the season after a freak injury while playing on the field goal coverage unit.
Against the Titans, Polamalu made a rousing show of being back to full speed by leaping over the left side of the Titans offensive line and landing on what could only have been a very shocked Kerry Collins. The Titans quarterback had been dropping back on a goal line play, but it was completely shut down after Polamalu delivered a trademark big play.
This is probably the most thrilling non-interception of Polamalu's career and is no less important since it silenced a goal line play.
During his entire career, defensive coaches have talked about the need to always know where Polamalu is on any given play. If he isn't found, the offense is usually in a lot of trouble. This was one of those times.
2009 wasn't the most memorable season for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Defending their Super Bowl title for the first time under coach Mike Tomlin and for the second time in less than five years, the Steelers finished a disappointing 9-7 and out of the playoffs.
That doesn't mean that there weren't some amazing plays during the season. One of them came against the Tennessee Titans. The Titans had been the top team in the AFC the previous season but had faltered badly in the playoffs.
The Steelers opened the season with this game, so the season was filled with promise at that point. In a year in which Polamalu would miss more games than he played, he provided some great theater with a one-handed interception that helped keep the game scoreless.
It was a deep bomb of a pass for the Titans. Polamalu was slightly beaten in coverage, but he used his athleticism and quick reaction skills to turn, leap and threw up one hand in which he palmed the interception. It turned what looked like a potential score into a turnover.
Also of note, Polamalu's return set up the Steelers very well. He almost never goes down with a turnover without gaining some yards back.
It was a game that ended 11-10. This play did not win the game, but in a game decided by only one point, every moment in crucial.
This was in the first quarter of the game. Philip Rivers and the Chargers were driving on the Steelers. Just shy of mid-field, the Chargers dropped into a pass play and the ball reached the receiver at the same time as Ike Taylor.
What happens next is almost unbelievable. The ball caromed away from the entangled receiver and corner and seemed to be heading for an open patch of snow-dusted turf. Suddenly, out of what seemed like thin air, Troy Polamalu dives into the frame and slips his right hand under the ball just before it grazes the turf.
After that, Polamalu jumps up with the ball firmly cradled and begins picking his way through the Chargers offense-turned-defense.
The play was reviewed and upheld and remains one of the most stunning interceptions in NFL history and perhaps the most acrobatic and shocking play of Polamalu's career. It certainly shows everything that makes him special.