The NFL has had some great defenders throughout history, and the Pittsburgh Steelers have provided more than a few.
From Jack Butler early on, to the host of Hall of Fame defenders that comprised the Steel Curtain in the 1970s, the “Blitzburgh” defense of the mid-90s to the latest version under one of the greatest defensive minds in the history of football—Dick Lebeau.
Amongst those great in reputation and deed are men like Jack Lambert, Mean Joe Greene, and Mel Blount. Guys that shaped the modern defense, and the rules that had to be put in place to protect the abilities of offensive players.
There are new names to be added to that great Steelers legacy, but none more readily comes to mind than safety Troy Polamalu.
His impact on the game, and the way the Steelers are able to play defense is invaluable, and it has never been clearer than during his absence in 2009.
Here are the top 10 things Troy Polamalu brings to the table for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ defense that no other player has the ability to do by himself...
It’s the basic makeup of Polamalu’s game. The fundamentals if you will of what makes him so much better than anyone else at his position.
It’s his uncanny ability to mix the mental with the physical in such a way that it produces a chain reaction of timing, rhythm, getting the right read and reaction with his eyes, both for himself and from the defense, and then the explosiveness to act on all of it physically.
The worst part for opposing offenses is that it rarely, if ever, looks the same way twice.
No other player has quite the ability to walk up to the line of scrimmage or sit 12 yards off the ball and give the quarterback a read that is undoubtedly sure to be wrong post-snap.
It is this ability that makes Polamalu the conductor of orchestrated chaos. He is the one player on the field that causes all the other individual parts of the defense to work simultaneously as a whole.
With Polamalu in the secondary during field goal and punt situations, the opposing team’s special teams coordinators have to think twice about formation use and fakes.
When a player of Polamalu’s versatility is on the field in a special teams situation, he has to be accounted for immediately.
No matter where he is lined up on the field in a given situation, he can track to the opposite sideline faster than anyone else on the field, and his awareness will let him do so at a moments notice.
It’s that combination of speed and awareness that prevents opposing teams from using split protection and stretch formations in their kicking schemes, and from attempting fakes in most kicking situations.
Based on the first two things Polamalu brings to the table, it is easy to understand why opposing offensive coordinators and head coaches have to game plan specifically against him from week to week.
Because of his versatility and aggressiveness, teams rack their brains for the better part of a week in order to adapt their playbooks with misdirection and flood zone passing and running schemes.
While the rest of the team’s defense is certainly not lost in the mix, the necessity of locating and forcing Polamalu to commit or over pursue on a play often times frees up other areas of the defense.
This is especially true in the case of the outside pass rush in the 3-4 zone.
One of the best coaching minds in football, Bill Belichick, often calls Polamalu by name during early week press conferences when addressing game planning against the Steelers.
“If you don’t know where Troy Polamalu is,” says Belichick, “he’ll kill you.”
Having Troy Polamalu behind them allows a defense founded on the principles of aggressive linebacking play to do more than they ever could without him.
The old adage of “make your buddy look good” in football is what makes Polamalu such an asset in the 3-4 scheme.
With Polamalu’s athleticism, he has the ability to close space almost instantly. His agility and ability to change direction allows him to recover and fill open holes from sideline to sideline faster than any safety in the game.
Because of that ability, the linebacking corps as a whole can afford to be as aggressive as Polamalu is.
Instinctive players like James Farrior and Larry Foote have made careers out of responding to pre-snap reads and putting themselves in position to make plays. Much of that freedom to respond to what the offense gives them comes from the confidence in knowing that Polamalu is backing up the second level of the defense.
More aggressive play from your linebackers will surely get you in trouble on occasion, but these occasions are far and fewer between with Polamalu in the secondary. Which means that the aggression he affords them results in more sacks and tackles for a loss.
Ray Lewis, Patrick Willis, there is a list of maybe a handful of players in the NFL that can cover the running game from sideline to sideline in such a way that you are just as likely to hear their names called on the tackle whichever direction the play is called.
Troy Polamalu certainly fits on that list of players.
While his tackling ability is sometimes hindered by the full-throttle style with which he tracks down the play, there are not many players in the NFL with the ability to diagnose the run and get to the ball faster.
What his ability to read and respond to a play does for the Steelers' defense is two-fold.
1. He narrows the field of play:
His mere quickness alone narrows the field of play in which linebackers and defensive linemen must contend for a tackle.
This simply means that he is able to use his range in order to, at the very least, turn the outside running game back inside to a scraping linebacker if he is unable to make the tackle himself.
2. He changes the posture of the offense:
Because he seldom lines up in the same place twice, Polamalu has the ability to change offensive blocking assignments almost at will.
By moving just two or three yards, he completely changes the assignment of each player to that side of the center. This is so important, because it makes the difference between a chip block from two down lineman and each lineman having to engage a different defender while employing a back or tight end to make up for the added man on that side of the field.
This type of disruption leads to confusion and missed assignments, and that is the same type of disruptive feature Troy Polamalu is for the Steelers defense.
The effect Polamalu has on the zone coverage schemes of the Pittsburgh Steelers is perhaps the most important thing he does defensively.
Once again, his speed and athletic ability gives him the versatility to be able to cover both the run like an added linebacker and the pass like a true defensive back.
This type of versatility allows him to cover almost any zone within a defensive scheme without being in that zone pre-snap.
What this does is allow the Steelers the ability to send pressure by way of blitz from almost anywhere on the field, as they know that Polamalu can cover the ground necessary to defend the vacated zone.
The inverted cover two is one of the most effective secondary schemes in football, but it is also one of the more difficult schemes to run.
Why is it so difficult?
The safety involved has to have the cover skills to handle the initial thrust of the play, and it is incredibly easy to get burned if your safeties do not have the speed to make the switch and stick with the receiver.
In a nutshell, the inverted cover two is a variation of the cover two defense that most NFL teams employ in pass coverage. The difference between the two is that pre-snap the corner lines up inside of the receiver while the safety is over the top outside. Right before or after the snap the corner and safety essentially switch responsibilities as the corner bails out to cover the deep pass and the safety comes up to cover.
The switch is most effective post-snap and is much harder to perform unless the safety is capable of running with a receiver in coverage. When employed against a team with a potent vertical passing game it is highly effective in shutting off the outside, and deep passing game.
The perfect example would be in the first half against the Arizona Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII. Larry Fitzgerald was virtually nonexistent in the first half of that game due to this very set involving Troy Polamalu and the Steelers’ corners.
It proved to be so effective in thwarting the vertical passing game of Arizona that it left the Cardinals completely frustrated going into halftime.
Like any defensive scheme, it has its weaknesses, and it leaves the middle of the field vulnerable with a single linebacker covering the center of the field. That weakness was a fact that the Cardinals exploited in the second half of Super Bowl XLIII throwing to Fitzgerald over the middle for record-breaking numbers.
While it would not behoove the Steelers to run the inverted cover two with any type of consistency in terms of percentage of plays, Polamalu affords them the opportunity to use it quite effectively against teams that try to stretch the field vertically.
Something the Steelers will see regularly from the revamped Baltimore and Cincinnati offenses in the AFC North, and versus the New Orleans Saints in primetime this season.
Troy Polamalu brings the ability to eliminate entire aspects of an opposing team’s offense with one-on-one pass coverage capabilities that are rivaled at the safety position only by players like Ed Reed.
Polamalu is notorious for not only being fast enough, but also strong enough to cover the elite pass catching tight ends in the NFL like Antonio Gates and Tony Gonzalez, who, by no coincidence, have struggled mightily against the Steelers’ defense since 2004.
Polamalu is not limited to covering tight ends. In fact, his one-on-one skills in pass coverage enable the Steelers to use a number of different sets in pass coverage that they would not be able to run successfully otherwise.
However, Polamalu’s importance in pass coverage goes beyond his own man coverage abilities and extends to the way his teammates treat the coverage scheme as well. What his presence does for the defense became extremely clear as they found themselves exposed in his absence last season.
If you watched the Steelers for any length of time in 2009, you surely saw a flat-footed Tyrone Carter playing overtop of the Steelers’ biggest disappointment of 2009—William Gay.
If you watched closely during these plays, you know that Gay would consistently lose a step or two in his backpedal, leaving the receiver with a fade pocket 12 or more yards deep on the sideline. This is a situation that often leads to interceptions for Polamalu, who is assigned to help over the top. His closing speed often enables him to bait the quarterback into throwing the ball thinking the receiver is open, and then meeting the ball at its highest point before the receiver.
Carter, on the other hand, who possesses neither the closing speed nor the natural instincts of Polamalu, failed to close on the receiver fast enough. The results often being substantial yards gained for the opposing offense.
Troy Polamalu has been instrumental in forcing turnovers for the Steelers defense.
After playing only sparingly in his rookie season, and not playing more than 13 games in three of the last four seasons, Polamalu has achieved a total of 30 turnovers in his injury-abbreviated career.
He has averaged a little fewer than five turnovers a season, including his rookie campaign.
With 20 interceptions Polamalu already ranks 14th on the Steelers all-time list, and assuming he will find a way to stay healthy, the number of interceptions and his place in Steelers’ history will only continue to climb.
With Polamalu playing in only five games in 2009, Steelers fans got the opportunity to see just how many chances he affords Dick Lebeau and the Steelers’ defense.
Because of all the things his versatility offers in the 3-4 defensive scheme that other players cannot, the defensive philosophy changed drastically, especially in the fourth quarter.
The ability to create pressure on the quarterback late in games by sending the extra man is more often than not a direct result of the belief that your man sent will get to his target, and that if he fails to do so, someone will be there to cover him and prevent the big play.
Much the same way he allows the linebackers the ability to be aggressive, he also allows his defensive coordinator the ability to be aggressive in situations that most teams go into a prevent defense.
Fans saw a lot of the prevent defense out of the Steelers with a lead in the forth quarter in 2009, and they also saw those leads vanish in the scheme that is designed to give the offense the short pass but keeps the play in front of the defenders.
Whether Dick Lebeau uses Polamalu’s athletic ability to create the pressure himself, or asks him to cover for the man who is creating that added pressure, there is no one on the Steelers defense that does it better.
The added explosiveness of a Troy Polamalu gives the Steelers the ability to attack the offense, rather than letting the offense attack them.