His hair wrapped in a white towel, turban-style, Troy Polamalu sits in the Pittsburgh Steelers' locker room in November 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 and defensive end Kimo Von Oelhoffen had more for the Steelers this season.
His 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 New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick. "He's all over the field." The Green Bay Packers got a firsthand look on Nov. 6, 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."
His frantic movement and ravenous appetite for ballcarriers earned Polamalu the nickname Tasmanian Devil from fellow starting safety Chris Hope. "It goes with the way his hair goes all over the place and the way he runs," Hope says. "He's always into something. He's always diving, scratching, clawing under a pile."
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 to the huddle, head down, saying a silent prayer. He never talks trash. Porter has heard him curse on the field twice, both times shocking teammates.
Von Oelhoffen noticed Polamalu's idiosyncrasies during the safety's first preseason game, in 2003. "I love to watch him," says Von Oelhoffen. "He [just] smiles between plays. Then it's Bing! Bing! Bing! He's all over the place."
At times Polamalu's play can go over the edge--he picked up four 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 Denver ( John Lynch), Dallas ( Roy Williams), Philadelphia ( Brian Dawkins and Michael Lewis), New England ( Rodney Harrison), Baltimore ( Ed Reed) and Washington ( 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) in 2004 and tied for second in tackles (97). "I need to get better because all these [other] people are getting better."