Pittsburgh Steelers: Polamalu "Overrated" Has Experts Losing Credibility

Matt ShervingtonCorrespondent IIJune 11, 2011

At This Point In His Career Troy Polamalu May Be "Underrated" Due To Unfounded Criticisms Of His Coverage Abilities
At This Point In His Career Troy Polamalu May Be "Underrated" Due To Unfounded Criticisms Of His Coverage AbilitiesNick Laham/Getty Images

The NFL Draft is a spectacle unlike any other. No other league’s draft is so closely followed by the fans in hopes that a draft pick or two can immediately change the fortunes of their team. Perhaps this is why with most first-day picks comes a cascade of cheers or boos with every name that is announced.

Most fans either feel incredibly happy with a pick or they feel a sense of doom and gloom. Often there is no middle ground in how the fans feel.

In 2003 when the Steelers traded up 11 spots and picked Troy Polamalu with their first-round pick, I was certainly feeling a sense of doom and gloom.

Not being a fan of NCAA football at the time, I had absolutely no idea who Polamalu was.

Additionally I wanted a halfback to supplant the horrid trio of Jerome Bettis, Amos Zereoue and Chris Fuamatu-Ma’afala. Troy certainly was not going to do that.

As a Steelers fan I can gladly say that whenever I have experienced doom and gloom with a first round pick I usually get the benefit of eating crow several years later. No player has made me eat as much crow as Troy Polamalu.

Without question Troy Polamalu was worth his first round pick and then some. However, recently I have heard so-called “analysts” and “experts” rant about Polamalu.

These individuals have claimed that Polamalu is not worthy of a number of things ranging from his reigning “Defensive Player of The Year” award to the label of “best safety in the NFL.”

My question to these individuals is “are you watching the games?”

The latest in the line of critics was none other than CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco.

I need not even highlight that Prisco failed to do his research as to the particular ailment that faced Polamalu in the Super Bowl. However, for those that do not know Polamalu had an ankle/Achilles injury in the Super Bowl, although Prisco claims Steelers insiders told him it was a “groin.”

In his latest rendition of his annual list of overrated and underrated players he named Polamalu as the league’s most overrated player. In doing so he stated that Polamalu’s play during the post-season left much to be desired and highlighted that Polamalu cannot play effective coverage.

While not even the biggest Steelers homer will try and advocate that Polamalu had an effective post-season, there is one huge problem in examining Polamalu’s post-season. He was playing on the aforementioned injured ankle/achilles. The injury was so bad that the team’s doctors suggested that Polamalu shut it down for the remainder of the season in Week 14.

Prisco counters that injury has to be taken into account and that if Polamalu felt he was healthy enough to remain on the field then he should be held accountable. I cannot disagree with that at all. It is a very well-conceived argument. My issue, however, is that Prisco and an emerging amount of casual fans are using Polamalu’s play during that span to classify Polamalu’s entire season or career.

As I would not take Troy Polamalu’s game against the Bengals in Week 14 and use it as testament to his season or career, I would expect a straight-thinking individual to do the same in the opposite direction.

The common example taken from Polamalu’s lackadaisical post-season is that the Packers “picked on him” in the Super Bowl to the tune of two touchdowns. As a result, people believe that Polamalu cannot play coverage. However, there are several fallacies with this argument…

The first fallacy with the argument that the Packers “picked on” Polamalu is that it is completely exaggerated. The Packers certainly neutralized Polamalu in the Super Bowl. But to say that he was targeted often is an erroneous claim. Exaggeration has gone hand-in-hand with Super Bowl XLV though. The reality is that people will tell you Clay Matthews III had a tremendous game due to his forced fumble despite being the primary reason that the Steelers offense was even in the game.

To elaborate on how exaggeration played a pivotal role in critiquing Polamalu’s Super Bowl look no further than the actual amount of times he was targeted during the game. Polamalu was directly targeted twice in the game to the tune of two receptions for 12 yards and a touchdown. I won’t advocate that it was a great game, especially when considering the time that he allowed the touchdown. But that is a far cry from being picked on.

So why do people believe Polamalu was “picked on”?

It is quite simply actually. There exists the perception that Polamalu allowed two receptions that he indeed did not.

The first reception people believe that Polamalu allowed was a Greg Jennings touchdown in the second quarter. However the touchdown was the result of excellent scheming by the Packers to exploit mismatches in speed from the Steelers linebackers, not Polamalu.

On that specific play the Packers came out in a four wideout set to which the Steelers responded with a 4-2-5 nickel package that had Polamalu lining up in the free safety role on the weakside of the formation. The Packers shifted their strongside slot receiver—one Greg Jennings—to the weakside of the formation. In doing so Jennings was now being played by James Farrior instead of Lawrence Timmons. Anyone can tell you the athletic difference between Farrior (36) and Timmons (25) based on age alone.

As the play carried out Jennings was now free to run a post route up the seam near the hash marks covered by the much slower Farrior than against the more athletic Timmons who at least had a chance to run with him. Anyone can tell you that a linebacker against a top six wide receiver with no cushion is a mismatch. Although Farrior was beaten Polamalu still made an admirable play by breaking on the ball as it was released in time to try and jar the ball loose from Jennings’ hands. However, the throw from Rodgers was so precise through the seam of the trailing linebacker and the closing safety that even Timmons—who came across from the strongside of the formation—could not get a hand on the ball despite a tremendous attempt.

Somehow despite Farrior failing to widen Jennings route to disrupt the timing and Polamalu making the optimal play in that situation people seem to blame Polamalu on that play.

The other play that it is perceived that Polamalu blundered was a reception by Jordy Nelson on 3rd and 10 in the fourth quarter.

The play in question involved the Packers again lining up in a four wideout formation with trips lined up on the left but with nobody sent into motion. The Steelers countered with what the media labeled as a “Psycho Package” all season with only one player having his hand in the dirt. The Steelers had two rush linebackers playing defensive end and Brett Keisel in a joker position between them. On the left side of the formation they lined up two defensive backs and a linebacker to cover the non-bunched trips. On the other side of the formation the Steelers had 4 defensive backs including Polamalu who was playing the free safety role 15 yards deep next to Ryan Clark.

The two cornerbacks on that side of the formation were sent on an overload blitz in hopes to get to Aaron Rodgers, but could not. In blitzing the Steelers declared a Cover-3 zone. In this instance Polamalu took center field, Ryan Clark covered from the right hashes to the sideline and Ike Taylor covered from the left hashes to the sideline. Again, this was an obvious mismatch which resulted in Nelson one-on-one against Clark.

Another Polamalu detractor—Future Hall of Famer Warren Sapp—would allude to this 38-yard reception by Jordy Nelson in an attempt to downplay Polamalu’s effectiveness.

While in an argument as to who the best safety currently in the NFL is in regards to the remainder of the NFL Network’s “Top 100 Players of 2011” list Sapp rehashed Prisco’s argument about Polamalu in coverage.  Sapp stated that Polamalu was “bad at coverage” due to his being 15 yards down field. Essentially what Sapp was asking of Polamalu in this instance was to abandon his assignment in order to make a potential play.

I don’t doubt that Warren Sapp has forgotten more about football than I will ever know, but with all due respect, he is wrong in this case. Polamalu was responsible for the middle third of the field in that Cover 3 look, and he did just that. However, because Ryan Clark failed to make a play in a situation in which he was at a disadvantage from to start Troy Polamalu received blame.

Further attacking Polamalu’s abilities Sapp claimed that Polamalu is not half the player that Ed Reed is.

I do not mind a person believing that Ed Reed is the better safety of the two. For me personally this argument is the second best in the NFL after only Manning-Brady. However, Sapp’s reasoning as to why Polamalu was inferior to Ed Reed was what intrigued me.

Sapp claimed that Ed Reed was league’s better in coverage than Polamalu and that the latter gets lost. He used three arguments to make his case; that Reed has more interceptions, that Polamalu is “lost” further from 15 yards to the line of scrimmage and that player’s rave about Reed but not Polamalu.

It is without question that Ed Reed destroys Polamalu in the interception statistic. Reed is—without question—the best zone coverage safety of all time. Reed’s 54 career interceptions literally double that of Troy Polamalu’s 27. However, there is a clear issue that even the casual fan can tell you. There is a four year discrepancy where Ed Reed play free safety and Troy Polamalu was predominately playing strong safety.

Even the most casual of fans should know that your free safety traditionally plays deep zone coverage in most coverage shells other than the illusive “Cover 0.” Conversely your strong safety is expected to play against the run and man coverage in most coverage shells other than Cover-2 and Cover-4.

Ed Reed was moved to free safety in 2005 after an injury concerned the Ravens because he was too valuable to thump it out as a strong safety anymore. Troy Polamalu continued to play strong safety until 2008.

As a matter of fact Polamalu is still a strong safety but with Mike Tomlin gradually gaining more control in Dick LeBeau’s defense he has had Troy Polamalu play more Cover-2 roles at the free safety position. Polamalu has taken 52 percent of his snaps in the free safety position since 2008. It is no coincidence that Polamalu’s interceptions blossomed in that same time period with 17 over the past 35 games in comparison to 10 in his first 72 games where the Steelers often ran Cover-3 shells.

So the “interception” argument used by Sapp is an ignorant one ignoring the difference between the safety positions. Additionally it ignores that Reed has had four more years playing a free safety role which aids his interception totals.

The second argument that Polamalu is “lost” further than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage is also an ignorant claim.

As I stated earlier Ed Reed is correctly regarded as the best zone coverage safety in the history of the game. While Polamalu doesn’t touch that level his man coverage has been better than Reed’s in most years with 2004 being the exception. In fact the metrics from reputable sources such as Football Outsiders and K.C. Joyner support this.

For comparison’s sake we will look at the last three years as both have predominately played free safety type roles.

In 2008 per Football Outsiders Troy Polamalu was targeted 48 times with a 68 percent success rate allowing 193 yards and two touchdowns in 16 games. Conversely Ed Reed was targeted 24 times with a 65 percent success rate allowing 137 yards and three touchdowns in 16 games.

In 2009 per Football Outsiders Troy Polamalu was targeted 16 times with a 69 percent success rate allowing 77 yards and two touchdowns in 5.5 games. Conversely Ed Reed was targeted 18 times with a 63 percent success rate allowing 111 yards and three touchdowns in 12 games.

In 2010 per Football Outsiders Troy Polamalu was targeted 38 times with a 45 percent success rate allowing 220 yards and zero touchdowns in 14 games. Conversely Ed Reed was targeted 23 times with a 72 percent success rate allowing 129 yards and two touchdowns in 10 games.

For those fearing to do the math that adds up to Troy Polamalu being targeted 100 times for 490 yards and four touchdowns with a 61 percent success rate over 35 games. Conversely Ed Reed has been targeted 65 times for 377 yards and eight touchdowns with a 64 percent success rate over 38 games.

I will advocate that statistics are not the end-all be-all of football but I will say what I have seen between the two – watching every game possible using GameRewind—corroborates these findings. So if Troy Polamalu is “often lost” and “easily taken out of the game” like Sapp claims then what does that make Reed who Sapp advocated for strongly.

Finally, Warren Sapp argued that players ranted and raved about Reed but not Polamalu. Even more so Sapp did this despite a current player being in the studio with him telling him he voted for Polamalu. Sapp stated that players like Peyton Manning rant and rave about Reed but not Polamalu. However, a simple Google search shows me that players rant and rave just as much about Polamalu.

As a matter of fact two potential Hall of Famers in Kurt Warner and Darren Sharper rated Troy Polamalu as a superior player - albeit slightly - all the while recognizing that the two do play different positions. During so Warner and Sharper conveyed that you must know where both are but it's easier to gameplan for Ed Reed due to his traditional free safety role so he'd rather play against him.

With that said this article isn’t about who is better between Polamalu and Reed. Nor is it about whether or not Polamalu is the best safety in the NFL. Those are opinion-based and open to interpretation. Rather this article is to point out these false beliefs that the so-called “analysts” and “experts” have continually perpetrated to the public.

Debunking the asinine belief that Polamalu cannot cover despite comparable metrics to Ed Reed. To rid the world of the myth that Polamalu had a horrid Super Bowl. And most importantly to show that the media critics out there are clearly speaking out of ignorance rather than actually watching the guy play.

I’ll be the first to admit when Polamalu blunders, now why can’t the haters admit his strengths? I’m talking to you Pete Prisco, Warren Sapp, Jamie Dukes and Marshall Faulk…


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