As a man with many football talents, Troy Polamalu makes varied contributions to the No. 1-ranked defense in the NFL. To be sure, he is a linebacker in a safety's body, a player as physical as he is athletic. But, somewhere underneath all that hair is a running back or punt returner aching to break out.
Let Polamalu get his hands on the ball and something wild and wonderful is about to happen. Zig-zagging runs. Spin moves. Tumbles. It has been happening with increasing regularity this season, mainly because Polamalu, a four-time Pro Bowl safety, has been getting his hands on a lot of footballs, something he didn't do with as much frequency a year ago.
The result: a league-leading six interceptions, three in the past three games. After going 18 games without an interception, he has been collecting picks the way squirrels gather acorns.
"I just couldn't name the amount of plays he's cut off with his range and his diagnostic intuition, just getting to where the ball is, where the ball is breaking," defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said. "If he doesn't get the guy on the ground, he's sure slowing them enough for the posse to get there. He's invaluable to us back there."
"He's making impact plays that affect the game," said inside linebacker James Farrior. "He does it all the time, but it seems this year he's doing it a lot more."
"I always enjoy watching him play," said cornerback Bryant McFadden. "Sometimes I get caught looking at him when I'm on the field, just seeing what type of gifted guy he is."
So gifted that Polamalu might have another role Sunday against the Dallas Cowboys: Cover Terrell Owens.
LeBeau had Polamalu do that four years ago, the last time Owens played at Heinz Field, when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles. Whenever Owens lined up in the slot, Polamalu was assigned to cover the talented wide receiver -- one of the many wrinkles LeBeau has been known to spring on an unsuspecting offense.
Owens caught seven passes in that game, but for only 53 yards. His two longest catches came on back-to-back plays in the third quarter when he had receptions of 20 and 13 yards -- each time getting drilled by Polamalu after he caught the ball.
"I was on him quite a bit in that game," Polamalu said. "Sometimes it was the defense where I happened to line up on him.
"Who knows? Maybe they were trying to attack me. I don't know. Sometimes you do a box-and-one kind of thing. I don't think it will be the case. We have a different defense this year."
The Steelers haven't needed Polamalu to isolate on any of the top receivers because that role has been reserved for cornerback Ike Taylor, who has shadowed Plaxico Burress, Santana Moss, Reggie Wayne and Randy Moss the past six weeks.
But Taylor does not cover receivers if they line up in the slot in multiple-receiver formations. That is the job for Deshea Townsend, who covers the slot when the Steelers employ their nickel and dime defense. That arrangement is one of the reasons the Steelers rank No. 1 in the league in pass defense, allowing just 166.8 yards per game and only one pass longer than 40 yards in 13 games, best in the league.
"I think coaching is the biggest thing," Polamalu said. "They do a good job of preaching certain techniques, and, two, we have so many different weapons on defense."
Maybe none bigger than Polamalu.
On a defense that features two of the top five sackers in the NFL -- James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley -- Polamalu has re-emerged as the playmaker of the unit. His six interceptions are the most by a Steelers player since Rod Woodson in 1996 and just four shy of his total in his previous five seasons combined. Polamalu is second on the team with nine pass breakups and also had a fumble return for touchdown against San Diego that was negated by an admitted incorrect officials ruling.
"He's healthy, he's 100 percent, he feels good," said McFadden, who is scheduled to return against the Cowboys after missing six games with a broken right forearm. "That's the difference a year can make. When you're playing with a guy who's banged up and playing through injuries, and now he's 100 percent and feeling good, he's able to go out and do the things he is accustomed to doing."
One of those is running around with reckless abandon, particularly after an interception. Polamalu has just 58 return yards for his six interceptions, but that doesn't take into account the distance he traverses when he starts zig-zagging around the field, bobbing and weaving, looking for openings.
"You always want to score," Polamalu said. "On defense, we're probably more concerned with scoring than the offense. They're more concerned with controlling the clock.
"Our mind-set is to stop them from scoring or score whenever you get the ball. I think that's everybody mind-set on this defense."
Gerry Dulac can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published December 5, 2008 5:00 AM