Troy Polamalu and the Biggest Game-Changing Defensive Players in the NFL

Elliott Pohnl@@ElliottPohnl_BRFeatured ColumnistDecember 12, 2010

Troy Polamalu and the Biggest Game-Changing Defensive Players in the NFL

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    Troy Polamalu provided the Pittsburgh Steelers with the spark they needed in Week 14 against the Bengals.

    After Cincinnati took an early lead, Polamalu intercepted Carson Palmer and ran 45 yards yards for a touchdown.

    The play changed the complexion of the game and got those bumbling Bengals talking on the sideline.

    Polamalu's heroics have become the norm in recent years, with a number of timely interceptions and bone-jarring hits on his resume.

    He isn't the only star safety in the AFC North with a knack for making plays.

    Ed Reed is aging and constantly seems to be banged up, but he hasn't stopped producing.

    And when he gets the ball in his hands, watch out.

    So where do Polamalu and Reed rank among the list of the NFL's best game-changing defenders?

    Let's take a look.

Honorable Mention: Speed, Precision and Power

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    DeAngelo Hall

    DeAngelo Hall is a gambler who can flat out fly, so it's not surprising when he makes plays to the ball. Hall intercepted Jay Cutler five times earlier this season to solidify a place in the record books. Just don't ask him to make a tackle.

     

    Champ Bailey

    Unlike Hall, Bailey isn't afraid to get physical and lay the wood on wide receivers. His technique is second to none and his interception totals would be higher if opposing quarterbacks ever decided to challenge him.

     

    Haloti Ngata

    Ngata is beast of a man who makes an impact primarily by taking up space. Despite his immense size and strength, Ngata has no problem chasing down opponents from behind or making plays. The fourth-year pro already has set a career high with 5.5 sacks this season.

No. 15: Brian Orakpo, Washington Redskins

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    The young Redskins defensive end has only played 28 games in the NFL, but he has already become one of the most feared pass-rushers.

    With 19.5 sacks in his career, Orakpo seems destined for greatness.

No. 14: Patrick Willis, San Francisco 49ers

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    Willis is the prototypical modern linebacker, with the speed to run with tight ends and even wide receivers.

    His freakish physical ability forces opponents to alter their game plans and think twice about going over the middle.

    The face of the 49ers defense also brings an old-fashioned intensity to the table.

    His dominance could produce a defensive player of the year award in the very near future.

No. 13: James Harrison, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Harrison became a star after running back a Kurt Warner interception 100 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.

    Since that moment, his career has enjoyed plenty of marquee moments.

    Harrison's biggest impact to the game generally comes through his willingness to lay the wood on opposing players, even if it means forking over thousands of dollars in fines.

    Being stubborn isn't always a bad thing.

No. 12: Mario Williams, Houston Texans

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    After selecting Williams ahead of Reggie Bush and Vince Young, the Houston Texans faced an avalanche of criticism.

    It took Williams a little time to come into his own, but his athletic ability makes him one of the most feared pass-rushers in the game.

    If only he could also play cornerback or safety for the Texans.

No. 11: Asante Samuel, Philadelphia Eagles

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    In terms of being a well-rounded player, Samuel is nowhere near as accomplished as the other men on this list.

    But when it comes to making plays, few do it better than Samuel.

    Famous for gambling and jumping routes, he is leading the NFL with seven interceptions in nine games this season.

No. 10: Brian Urlacher, Chicago Bears

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    A few years ago, Urlacher would have been ranked much higher on this list.

    After declining production and a wrist injury that marred his 2009 season, Urlacher has bounced back with a strong campaign this year.

    Coming out of New Mexico, his speed and size made him an urban legend.

    It didn't take long for the world to understand how special he truly was.

    Although his turnover statistics aren't overwhelming, Urlacher is arguably the greatest sideline-to-sideline linebacker to ever play in the NFL.

No. 9: Ray Lewis, Baltimore Ravens

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    The leader of the Ravens' fantastic defense has forced 16 fumbles and recorded 30 interceptions during his Hall of Fame career in Baltimore.

    Even as he enters the twilight of his days in the NFL, Lewis remains one of the most productive tacklers in football.

No. 8: Terrell Suggs, Baltimore Ravens

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    Like his teammate Ray Lewis, Suggs has a little bit of crazy inside of him. That is part of what makes him such a difference-maker in the NFL.

    The former Arizona State Sun Devil fell in the draft when teams were concerned about his value at the pro level. A dynamic pass-rusher in college, Suggs has had no problem translating those skills to the Ravens' 3-4 scheme.

No. 7: Dwight Freeney, Indianapolis Colts

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    The master of the spin move, Freeney ran a ridiculous 4.38 in the 40-yard dash in 2002.

    Once he put on the pads in the NFL, he settled in at defensive end and gradually became a complete player. Freeney has recorded 92 sacks during his eight-year career despite facing almost constant double-teams.

    He has also helped teammate Robert Mathis make millions.

No. 6: DeMarcus Ware, Dallas Cowboys

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    Although he has had a down year by some standards, Ware has still totaled 9.5 sacks for the Cowboys.

    His speed coming off the edge attracts constant attention and is good enough to at least give the Cowboys' secondary a fighting chance.

    If Dallas ever gets a dynamic pass-rusher opposite of him, Ware could easily put up 15 sacks in a season.

No. 5: Charles Woodson, Green Bay Packers

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    Woodson's interception totals are down this season, but he continues to make an impact for the Packers. At 34, he seems to have lost a bit of speed. His instincts haven't faded one bit.

    Woodson makes a huge difference in the Packers' blitz scheme, coming off the slot as a blitzer to create havoc.

    The former Heisman Trophy winner will go down as one of the best cornerbacks to ever play in the NFL.

No. 4: Ed Reed, Baltimore Ravens

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    After missing the first six games of the 2010 season, Reed showed he could still be a difference-maker in his very first game back from a hip injury. He recorded four tackles, picked off two passes and forced a fumble to provide some stability to Balitmore's defense.

    Throughout his nine-year career, Reed has been both stable and spectacular.

    When he gets the ball in his hands, he almost always scores or laterals to a teammate who finds the end zone.

    It's safe to say Reed will have a bust in Canton after he retires.

No. 3: Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers

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    It's difficult to believe Matthews was a former walk-on at USC who wasn't even a full-time player until he was a senior.

    He doesn't boast the prototypical size of a rush linebacker, but he has fantastic instincts.

    With great speed and quickness, Matthews is very difficult for bigger blockers to contain.

    Don't be surprised if he goes on to win the Defensive Player of the Year award in just his second NFL season.

No. 2: Julius Peppers, Chicago Bears

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    When he wants to be, Peppers can be completely dominant. And then some.

    Whether it's attacking Aaron Rodgers or running down Michael Vick from behind, Peppers has proved his worth in his first season in Chicago.

    His impact as a difference-maker goes well beyond the numbers.

No. 1: Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    It's close, but Polamalu's overall ability as a hitter and in coverage makes him the biggest difference-maker in the NFL.

    Without him in the lineup for much of the 2009 season, Pittsburgh's defense went from very good to very bad.

    Now that he has recovered from his knee injury, Polamalu has gotten back to making dynamic plays on a routine basis.

    If Troy Polamalu is playing defense, it's worth tuning in to witness his next great play.