When the Pittsburgh Steelers gained a lead of 11 points during the tenure of Bill Cowher, the game was effectively over. And under Cowher, they accomplished the feat 110 times, with an overall record of 108-1-1. But that first loss was significant, not in the standings, but in exposing a weakness.
On December 10, 2001, the 12-2 Steelers had a commanding 23-10 4th quarter lead over a woeful 4-win Cincinnati Bengals team. But the head coach was the man that designed the Steelers defense: Dick LeBeau. He spread the field out and mercilessly attacked the secondary with journeyman QB Jon Kitna, resulting in a career day (411 yards) and a 26-23 comeback win.
The weakness that LeBeau exposed was exploited through the entire season in 2002. Teams didn’t even bother with any attempt to keep the defense honest as QBs easily torched the Steelers from the season opener and on through the playoffs. What LeBeau exposed led to the Steelers doing something that had never been done in the history of the franchise, they traded up in the 1st round to address the glaring need. They had their eye on an unusual prospect that an evaluation of his special teams play alone would have made him a draftable player. But they got much more than that, as Troy Polamalu changed the course of the Steelers franchise.
Rough Steelers Rookie Campaign
Polamalu arrived in Pittsburgh amid a lot of hype and promise, but had a rookie year to forget. Whispers of “bust” got louder as the year went on and Polamalu began to question his confidence. He would even admit as such. But Cowher revealed that the coaching staff threw him into many different defenses with different rules because of his amazing skill set. It was unfair, but they never lost faith in him. And Troy would even admit that the adversity of his rookie year shaped the rest of his career.
The Journey Begins
After a forgettable rookie season, in 2004 the very definition of irony came full circle. The very coach who prompted the unprecedented trade for Polamalu by exposing the secondary, returned to Pittsburgh to helm the defense. What resulted was the arguably the most perfect symphony of player and coach ever.
Strong safety was always a critical component to LeBeau’s scheme, and he had some great ones over the years, but nothing quite like Polamalu. In 2004, Polamalu took the league by storm and there was no looking back. No player in NFL history played the position quite like Polamalu. There was no better student of the game, he knew the defensive system, understood the principles, and respected it. But he wasn’t hesitant to take risks when appropriate. Bill Cowher called him “conservatively aggressive” as he was always thinking, detecting the rhythm of the game and was ready to make a play.
Bill Cowher; per Heart and Steel, Atria Books:
We were in a Cover 2 defense, in which Troy was responsible for covering half the field. Prior to the snap, sometimes Troy lined up in different places to disguise his coverage. In this instance, Troy lined up right next to the inside linebacker. I couldn’t believe it. From that position on the field, it made it nearly impossible for him to fulfill his assignment. When I saw it, I thought, My God, he doesn’t know what coverage we’re in! He’d better get outta there.
I started yelling to and pointing at him: “Two! Two! Troy! Two!” He looked at me and waved me off, as if he wanted me to be quiet. I could see him telling me, “I’m okay! I’m okay!”
I didn’t think he was okay. The ball was snapped, and instead of moving into coverage, he stayed right in the flat. Completely out of position. I watched in total disbelief; I never expected that from an A student such as Troy. I couldn’t believe he blew the coverage. Fortunately, the play went nowhere. When he ran to the sideline a few plays later, I was right there to meet him. “What were you doing there? We were in Cover 2. You were up on the line of scrimmage.”
“I know, Coach. But we’ve been calling it so much I wanted to give the quarterback a different look. I told the corner, you take half the field, I’ll take the flat. Me and him just switched responsibilities.”
Cowher could not help but remark that was the mind of a great player and thinker at work. All Cowher could say was to tell him not to do that again without telling the coaches first so they wouldn’t have a heart attack.
Steelers vs Seahawks Super Bowl XL
On the day before Super Bowl XL, Cowher and LeBeau were overseeing a walkthrough in the hotel ballroom when they realized one of their defensive sets would leave the slot receiver uncovered against one of the Seattle Seahawks popular offensive formations. The two sat down that afternoon to draw up a new defense to defend it called the Sam 2 Becker. The defense was a 4-man rush with zone defense behind it, but it would alter the assignment of Polamalu. Without a chance to practice it, Polamalu easily assimilated his role as “robber” position and the newly created defense was used 18 times during the game.
Polamalu improvised the game unlike any player before him and revolutionized the position. Teammates would often remark about how he would play out of position because he sensed what the opposition what thinking and feeling. He would see it in their body language and energy. Ike Taylor nicknamed him “Baby Jesus” due to his ability to read plays before anyone else. Pat McAfee still jokingly bemoans how Troy “ruined his life” by lining up in a gap that he had not done all year. The former kicker thought he had a guaranteed TD on a trick play before Troy lined up in a gap at the last second, forcing an audible. McAfee, on his show, was blown away when Polamalu remarked how he could “read his energy as he came off the sideline, and laughingly said (McAfee) has a lot of tells in his game.”
2008 AFC Championship Game
Troy’s instincts were never more apparent than on January 18, 2009, when on a 4th and 1, from the Steelers’ 34-yard line, he eyed Baltimore Ravens QB Joe Flacco and made “the leap”, jumping over the line of scrimmage to stop a QB sneak before it even started. Just 3 plays later, Ben Roethlisberger connected with Santonio Holmes for a 65-yard TD and the games decisive score. Mike Tomlin said on America’s Game that whenever he thinks of Troy Polamalu, that was the play he thinks of.
But it wasn’t the only play of that game. With the game winding down and the Steelers holding on to a 16-14 lead, the Ravens had a chance to take the lead. Dick LeBeau recalled instructing Polamalu to focus on taking TE Todd Heap out of the play. When Heap stayed in to block (LeBeau believed it was due to concern of a Polamalu blitz), the field was wide open for Troy to read the eyes of the rookie QB and dart in to first intercept Flacco’s attempt, then follow it up in true “Tasmanian Devil” style as he eluded desperate attempts from the Ravens to bring him down. Instead, Polamalu finalized the game and the signature play of his career with an iconic image of his pointing to the crowd as he celebrated the game sealing TD.
A Lasting Legacy
To cover all of Troy Polamalu’s highlight plays and accomplishments would be impossible. He was so unique and special that even the peak 2000s Steelers record would indicate they were a .500 team without him and a championship team with him. As great as the Steelers were, there’s no chance they would have the 2 Super Bowls they won without him. He took risks but wouldn’t tell others because he didn’t want them to get in trouble in case his gamble was wrong. His quiet demeanor and spiritual sense earned him tremendous praise and respect.
Troy Polamalu is truly among the greatest players in NFL history. He changed the standard that strong safety would forever be compared to and unquestionably was a first ballot Hall of Famer.
What is your favorite Troy Polamalu moment? Share it in the comments below.