HIS HAIR wrapped in a white towel, turban-style, Troy Polamalu sits in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room after a spirited practice, quietly watching an impromptu competition among teammates. Spurred by trash talking, several players--some shirtless and barefoot, with baggy, gray sweatpants--are trying to touch the 12-foot ceiling. Polamalu smiles slightly as 6'3" linebacker Joey Porter takes a running start and grazes the ceiling after whiffing on his first attempt. When 6'1" receiver Nate Washington crouches and then swats the tiles to emphatically end the contest, Polamalu grins. Despite a vertical leap that has been measured at more than 40 inches, Polamalu has stayed out of the fray. "I've always been the observer who learns from other people," he says in a near whisper.
That reticence disappears on game days, when Polamalu unbundles his long locks and is transformed from a shy, self-effacing 24-year-old into one of the league's fiercest players, known for a hyperactive style and haymaker hits. Taking center stage as the strong safety in Pittsburgh's miserly 3-4 defense, the 16th pick in the 2003 draft is at the forefront of a new breed that is changing the way defense is played in the NFL. Says Steelers wide receiver Hines Ward, "When [ Troy] lets his hair down, he becomes a warrior."
What distinguishes Polamalu--aside from the hair--is the multitude of roles he plays in the Steelers' defense. At times he ambles to the line of scrimmage, then sprints back before the snap to become a third cornerback. Other times he'll jog up from his safety spot to become a fifth linebacker. But his most exotic role is as a pass-rushing end, in essence giving Pittsburgh a 4-4 formation; he'll even occasionally execute a stunt with a defensive lineman. In a Sept. 18 victory over the Houston Texans, Polamalu came at quarterback David Carr from all angles, tying an NFL record for a safety with three sacks. Only linebackers Porter and Clark Haggans have more for the Steelers this season.
The 2004 Pro Bowler's play at the line compels opposing coaches to pay special attention to him in their game plan, often using motion and shifts to force him to stay deep, where he has a tendency to bite on play-action. "If you don't know where he is, he'll kill you," says Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He's all over the field." The Packers got a firsthand look on Sunday, when Polamalu made six tackles and recovered two fumbles, returning one for a 77-yard touchdown in a 20-10 Steelers victory.
Polamalu so effectively masks his intentions that keeping track of him is a challenge. The quirkiest disguise is when he moves up, faking a blitz, then turns his back to the offense as if he's about to return to the secondary. At the snap Polamalu will suddenly whirl back around and rush the quarterback. "The thing that puts teeth into those moves is the fact that he can [do so many things]," says Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "So when he's at the line of scrimmage, the offense has to say, 'He may be coming.' If he turns his back to go deep, they're saying, 'Oh, no, he's going deep.' And then he wheels from that and blitzes. So you're dealing with the element of surprise."
Polamalu's frantic movement and ravenous appetite for ballcarriers earned him the nickname Tasmanian Devil from fellow starting safety Chris Hope last season. "It goes with the way his hair goes all over the place and the way he runs," Hope says. "He's always into something. If you look at our film, he's always diving, scratching, clawing under a pile. He's always full speed, going 125 mile per hour."
Once the whistle blows, though, Polamalu appears to be the most serene person on the field. He often helps up an opponent he just walloped, then saunters back to the huddle, head down, saying a silent prayer. He hardly chats with teammates and never talks trash. Porter has heard the safety curse on the field only twice, both times shocking his teammates.
Defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen noticed Polamalu's idiosyncrasies during the safety's first NFL preseason game, in 2003. "I love to watch him," says Von Oelhoffen, a 12-year veteran. "He [just] smiles between plays. Then it's Bing! Bing! Bing! He's all over the place."
At times Polamalu's untamed play can go over the edge--he has picked up three personal fouls this season, including two in the space of four snaps against Jacksonville on Oct. 16. "I'm passionate about everything I do," Polamalu says. "You have to play so aggressively, and it's hard to find the fine line."
While Polamalu's physical tools are apparent--he was timed at 4.35 seconds in the 40-yard dash at a predraft workout and has exceptional strength for his size--it's his cerebral approach to the game that has helped him master his multiple roles. Not long after last season ended, he watched more than 20 hours of game film over a two-week stretch at Pittsburgh's practice facility, studying the league's top safeties. He viewed every defensive play in the 2004 season for the Broncos ( John Lynch), Cowboys ( Roy Williams), Eagles ( Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis), Patriots ( Rodney Harrison), Ravens ( Ed Reed) and Redskins ( Sean Taylor), compiling a three-hour DVD of their highlights and mistakes. "In a game with a lot of great athletes the mental edge is what you [have to] have," says Polamalu, who led the Steelers in interceptions (five) last season and tied for second in tackles (97). "I need to get better because all these [other] people are getting better."