Any Steelers fan with a hint of visual acuity realizes that Troy Polamalu is a linch pin on the Pittsburgh defense. It's obvious to all in Steel-town that with Troy comes glory—and without Troy enters heartache.
His direct impact on a defensive unit that is ranked among the top few with annual consistency speaks for itself. Among great athletes and playing with some of the league's greatest defenders, he is arguably (to overstate it) the most important man on the field, playing behind the modern Steel Curtain (would that be the Steel Stage?).
If the Steelers' secondary is a Steel Stage, during most plays it is Troy that steals the show!
For his big-game impact and statistical prowess, there are still those analysts who downgrade his ability, namely by using the "what have you done for me lately" method of reducing a player's talents to his most recent game. A couple months ago, Pete Prisco wrote an article that calls Troy Polamalu the most overrated player in football.
In a city where citizens are angry over Ed Reed's ranking ahead of Troy, this elicited even more ire. In truth, the argument regarding the better safety became stale long ago, and both campgrounds—Reed's Renegades and Troy's Troopers—have their solid reasons for preferring their defensive hero.
Yet, Prisco doesn't justify his position with a simple comparison or any statistics. He cites two games.
The first reference is to Tom Brady, implying that Troy's struggles against the Patriots and their short-range passing attack. In truth, the Steelers defense owns that issues as a whole, annually bested by Brady and his quick wideouts. Truthfully, a study of the 2010 game against New England shows the astute Patriots' quarterback, ranked the best in the game this summer by his peers, didn't target a receiver covered by Polamalu once. Not one time. Zero.
Indeed, Tom Brady, the game's best quarterback, avoided Troy Polamalu.
Then again, Prisco also heralded Peyton Manning as superior to Tom Brady before Manning had ever even beaten the Boston behemoth. In dispute, Kerry Byrne of Cold, Hard Football Facts offered to debate Pete on the issue. Naturally, Prisco declined, almost certainly citing the classic rationale of those in the wrong: "He just is."
In other words, Steelers fans should have taken this for what it was worth. Including me.
The other game the journalist offers in his rating of the Steelers safety is the Super Bowl, where the one-legged safety did give up a touchdown, but was targeted only twice.
Whether or not Polamalu was over-aggressive during that game is not the issue; Prisco's small sample of two games versus years of statistics that bear Troy as an elite strong safety (a mark that is set against the average, not just Ed Reed, who happens to play free safety) is laughable. Apparently, Pete missed the 2009 AFC Championship Game and nearly every game Troy has ever played against Philip Rivers.
This article is not meant as a direct slight to a very successful sportswriter. It is simply in defense of Troy.
After all, one thing is not up for debate: Troy Polamalu is a great safety. Damn great.
Yes, his physical play does make him injury-prone.
Sure, he pays for his aggressiveness sometimes.
Yet, for every time fans can place blame on Polamalu for an undesirable outcome, they can point to ten other results made immaculate by the hard work and defensive prowess of the "Black n' Gold" safety who delivers black and blue.
Steelers fans can vividly recall the cutback run that secured Pittsburgh's place in Super Bowl XLIII. They remember Chris Johnson being cut down in the backfield by the speedy torpedo with the free-flying locks.
Hell, the man leaps over offensive lines like Superman to stuff ball carriers almost annually. Who else is doing that?
The "Head n' Shoulders Honcho" is head and shoulders above the vast majority of his peers, and he is one of the biggest reasons for the recent championship success of an illustrious franchise.
Here are five reasons that the Pro Bowl safety is one of the greatest players in the NFL today and one of the finest defensive backs in history.
Before taking any look at the results of his hard work at the safety position, fans need scrutinize the players' impact via nothing more than the team's success with and without Troy.
With Polamalu in the lineup, the Steelers are 75-29 since 2004.
Minus their star defender, the team is 12-9. Yes, they win, but they are not nearly as dominant.
While many of their defensive statistics remain the same despite his presence, one key category depends on his presence: interceptions.
The defense's interception totals DOUBLE during games in which Troy is in the lineup. While these interceptions are not necessarily the result of his own great playmaking ability, his presence does allow other members of the defense to concentrate their focus, able to focus on their own assignments without having to handicap for his absence.
Let's be frank. Tyrone Carter is no Troy Polamalu.
Additionally, it seems rational that defensive backs are also able to play a bit more aggressively when a savvy safety like Troy is in the game.
In other words, Troy commands a larger portion of the field and breathes confidence into a defensive unit that already possesses swagger. He has the range of many NFL cornerbacks, allowing Dick LeBeau to be more creative and self-assured in his play calling.
With Polamalu plays, Pittsburgh benefits in the standings. Plain and simple.
For all of the quantitative data that can be spewed, sometimes it is important to admire the beauty of an athlete's play simply by watching. For a player to obtain labels, those attributes should be supported by statistics. Nevertheless, the beauty of the game takes place on the field, not a statistician's sheet.
Fans who watch the video will remember the amazing one-handed interception Troy made during the NFL Kickoff 2009 versus the Tennessee Titans.
In that same game, Polamalu met Chris Johnson, the fantasy phenom of many draft boards, in an intimate running back and strong safety moment. He torpedoed into the backfield, upending the speedy Johnson, who had no chance to avoid the loss of yardage.
This was one of many examples of Troy's ability to make up ground and quickly disrupt running plays in the backfield.
Polamalu, hardly a limited athlete at his position, is equally adept at disrupting the pass and the run. For all of his aggressiveness and risk-taking, he has enough discipline to be effective against any style of offense and from anywhere on the field.
In the referenced game, Steelers fans will also remember Troy's injury and Kerry Collins driving the Titans 70-plus yards to a tying touchdown in three plays during the span of seconds shortly thereafter.
In 2010, playing the Titans once again, Polamalu perfectly timed a Herculean jump over the Tennessee offensive line, knocking the quarterback where he stood directly after the snap of the ball. It was eerily similar to a well-timed jump on a critical 4th-and-1 during the 2009 AFC Championship Game. On that play, the safety stuffed Joe Flacco on a quarterback sneak.
Every fan is entitled to their opinion. Sure, they can label him overrated if they desire.
Yet, how many NFL athletes—including receivers—would be able to lunge in the snow toward a tipped football, catching it with the very tip of their fingers as they landed on the cold grass? Check out the link and note how Jim Nantz was not initially aware of the interception. Who could blame him?
Nobody else in football makes that play. Including ball-hawking Ed Reed. And few safeties in the game are able to play it so well both ways, against both the pass and the run.
Wrong way, Matty Ice!
In the last three seasons, NFL quarterbacks have thrown at Troy Polamalu on slightly more than 120 attempts.
Just over 60 completions have resulted. The completion percentage of targets toward Troy is 50 percent in a modern NFL that considers at least a 60 percent completion rate as expected.
The link above shows numbers related to Polamalu's defense against the passing game. It was compiled by Steelers Depot, ranging from 2008-2010. The statistics indicate that the result of completions during this time against Troy was an average of 9.7 yards.
Additionally, four touchdowns have been directly attributable to Polamalu in that period, while the safety has made 18 interceptions.
Many of those turnovers have been the result of deflections or bounces, so let's generously negate half of those catches. The end result is still a 1:2 touchdown to interception ratio.
More stunning than the putrid 50 percent completion rate is an average per attempt of under five yards. To put this rate of progress into perspective, David Carr—a lackluster (to put it mildly) quarterback—has averaged 6.4 yards per attempt in his career.
Ryan Leaf? 5.6.
If the average quarterback isn't somewhere between those two, it stands to reason by simple mathematics that Troy Polamalu isn't your normal safety at defending the pass. In fact, the Steelers' top-ranked defense ranked second respective to yards per pass in 2010.
It's obvious given his recent rate of success when targeted that Polamalu is among the best talents in NFL defensive backfields.
To expand the sample would likely skew the figures, but not dramatically. While he may be aggressive and occasionally get beaten, this is true of all great safeties. The position requires fast decision-making, a sensitivity to each play, and the speed/athleticism to react quickly.
Troy possesses these skills, resulting in numbers that showcase his defensive aptitude.
For this category, just ask Joe Flacco.
The two main goals of every team worth its salt going into any season are:
a) to win the division.
b) to win the Super Bowl.
Troy Polamalu has taken steps to ensure team success in both regards in recent seasons.
Rising to the moment is the mark of great players. "Big players make big plays in..." You all know the saying.
After stuffing Joe Flacco on a well-timed leap on fourth down at midfield earlier in the game, Polamalu sealed the deal in the 2009 AFC Championship Game by intercepting a Flacco pass in the fourth quarter. He scored a touchdown, clinching the Lamar Hunt Trophy in a 23-14 win.
Nearly two years later, the safety made a momentous play in the AFC North. Leading 10-6, Baltimore's offense had the ball near midfield and seemed in control of a game that they never trailed. Choosing to pass and confident he could beat a blitz he claims to have recognized, Joe Flacco dropped back and....!!
Polamalu's tomahawk chop jolted the ball backwards from his arms. The fumble return set up the Steelers offense on the precipice of the Baltimore goal line. Isaac Redman scored the game winning touchdown, a play that proved to be the clincher of an AFC North Championship and bye week.
Big players do make big plays in big games. Indeed.
We've examined some recent data that provides a favorable quantitative view of Polamalu's pass coverage skills.
The safety's penchant for making big plays at key moments in franchise history has been highlighted, along with his undeniable trend for enhancing the Steelers from good to great in the standings with his mere presence.
Likewise, the most obvious statement of his greatness—his overall athleticism and, moreover, the eyeball test—were mentioned to demonstrate his uncanny physical ability against the pass and run.
However, most importantly, the superb safety does it the Steelers way. Normally, that translates to punishing physicality.
In this case, I mean something deeper.
Lacking any egocentricity, the team's greatest defender (sorry, Mr. Harrison) does not require the limelight. In fact, peers have noted his penchant for self-evaluation, emanating from his humble attitude and desire to overcome issues of conceit and vanity.
In an era where athletes have made headlines for the wrong reasons, Troy's most self-serving actions have been laterals.
Laterals, opposed to going down. Of all things, he is occasionally vilified for being too aggressive. In truth, sometimes he is!
Nobody will debate that he may make a wrong cut to the football or get caught out of position. For every failure, Troy has a multitude of success stories. This is also true of other great, albeit not to the same degree, NFL athletes. Yet, many of those players do not fully appreciate the opportunity given to them, a chance to have an impact beyond just the football field.
In a time where egos dominate sports, Troy embodies the manners of Steelers ownership, owning up to the core values of Art Rooney himself.
Caring. Humility. A notion that there are things in this world much bigger than football without devaluing the importance of the game itself to this community.
No guns about his shoulders. No criminal allegations.
Just playing the game and embodying the virtues of a great role model.
In that way, for all of our inabilities to make the great interception or run with the NFL's best receivers, we can all be a bit more like Troy Polamalu.
We can all strive to be good people.
Make no mistake, Pete Prisco. Troy Polamalu is not overrated.
Not as a player. And not as a man.