Deception is vital to any defensive scheme. LeBeau uses Polamalu's versatility to confuse offenses, allowing his safety to line up virtually anywhere on the field as long as Polamalu can perform his assigned task on the play. "He gives us better looks with his instincts than we could ever choreograph," says LeBeau. "So we encourage him to do that." As Polamalu has grown into the safety position, the Steelers have won two Super Bowls and sustained a team identity forged through defense.
But Polamalu's freelancing ferocity can exact a price. He has missed 21 games in the last five seasons, including 11 last year with a knee injury. "People close to Troy have talked to him about sacrificing his body," says Pola. And when Polamalu goes down, the Steelers are diminished. In the 2009 opener he had six tackles and an interception in the first half against the Titans before spraining his left MCL. Pittsburgh was 5--6 in the games he missed and failed to make the playoffs. This year Polamalu sat out a Dec. 19 game against the Jets with a strained Achilles tendon, and the Steelers gave up a season-high 106 yards on the ground in a 22--17 loss. "He sees thing and makes plays that nobody else makes," says Steelers' veteran backup quarterback Charlie Batch. "You can't substitute for that."
When he's on the field, quarterbacks are uniformly challenged. "Not too many guys in the league start out on the line of scrimmage and then play the deep zone in Cover Two," says Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. When Fitzpatrick was with the Bengals, Palmer (who remains close friends with Polamalu from their days together at USC) told his teammate, "If Troy rotates down into the curl zone in Cover Three, don't throw anything over there. Don't throw the comeback. Don't throw the out. Because he can get to all of them."
To illustrate Polamalu's technique, Saints quarterback Drew Brees squatted like a defensive back, statue-still, arms dangling. "This is what he looks like on every play," says Brees. "He doesn't give anything away."
Matt Schaub of the Texans said, "What does Polamalu do best? He guesses. He's got confidence that his front seven is going to get pressure on the quarterback, so he's not afraid to attack any area of the field. And he winds up right a lot of the time."
The artist, though, struggles to accept descriptions of his art. Ten days before the Steelers' postseason opener Polamalu stood next to his corner dressing cubicle (the one previously occupied by Jerome Bettis) at the team complex on Pittsburgh's South Side. "All the stuff about freedom," Polamalu said, "I can honestly say there's been one time in eight years when I just did whatever I wanted to do on a play. [That was the leaping sack on Collins.] The rest of the time I have a responsibility. Now, if I can see that there's no threat in my area of responsibility, that's where the creativity comes in."
These decisions come not just from some indefinable instinct, but also from endless video study, the attribute that seems to link every elite player in the NFL on either side of the ball. The leap at McCoy? "Based on their tendencies, down and distance, it was almost 100 percent run, away from me," says Polamalu. "So I had no pass responsibility." (McCoy indeed rolled out away from Polamalu's side after eluding the tackle and wound up throwing an incomplete pass into the right corner of the end zone.) The Collins sack, Polamalu says, was "a complete guess."
The pick on Palmer? "That was a team defensive play. [Cornerback] Bryant McFadden undercut T.O. and messed up their timing." Another of Polamalu's signature plays from this season was his killing strip-sack on the Ravens' Joe Flacco, the turnover that led to the Steelers' critical 13--10 victory on Dec. 5. That one, says Polamalu, "was totally Coach LeBeau's call."
And now, says Polamalu, opponents have become so suspicious of where he lines up that he has begun moving around less. "Cat-and-mouse," he says. "Quarterbacks have gotten to the point where they see me and think, 'He's not going to stay there.' Sometimes I'll bite on a pattern once, when I know our rush is going to get home, just so the quarterback will expect me to do it the next time."
If the instincts and preparation are one element of Polamalu's game, his tenacity is another. "I've never coached a player with his passion," says Greg Burns, Polamalu's position coach in his senior year at USC. "He wasn't vocal, but he was relentless."