Cook: Polamalu's play on a higher level

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CLEVELAND -- In one marvelous three-play sequence late in the fourth quarter yesterday that went a long way toward determining a winner in the Steelers-Cleveland Browns game, Steelers safety Troy Polamalu showed why he's the NFL's best defensive player.

Or, as teammate Larry Foote put it, "He showed the little something extra he has inside him that the rest of us don't."

There was Polamalu's closing speed -- unmatched in the league -- that enabled him to run down Browns quarterback Charlie Frye for a sack and no gain on the Steelers' sideline.

There was Polamalu's extraordinary instinct to get to the football -- honed by hours of film study -- that enabled him to slice through the left side of the Browns' offensive line to tackle running back Jason Wright for a 2-yard gain.

And there was Polamalu's fabulous athletic ability that enabled him to pull up on a blitz and time a leap just right to bat down Frye's pass for tight end Kellen Winslow.

Three plays and out for the Browns when a first down or two could have meant the game.

The Steelers took over and scored the touchdown that gave them a 24-20 win and delayed the removal of life support on their teetering season for at least another week.

"I've been playing football a long time and I've never seen anyone make plays like he makes," Foote said of Polamalu. "I'm seeing plays that I'll never see again."

Here's the best part of Polamalu's day:

His three plays came at the most crucial time, but he made others that also amazed. After Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor gambled and lost trying to break up a Frye sideline pass for wide receiver Braylon Edwards in the second quarter, Polamalu ran down Edwards after a 63-yard gain to save a touchdown and, ultimately, four points that would have been huge at the end. But his best play might have been the way he closed to the sideline to tackle tight end Steve Heiden after a 6-yard gain on a third-and-7 play early in the third quarter. No other NFL player could have prevented that first down.

"I don't know if even Michael Johnson or some of the other great sprinters in the world have Troy's speed for 10 yards," Foote said. "There's nobody else as fast as he is for those first 10 yards."

Foote grinned and shook his head, then said something so quietly it almost was if he didn't want anyone to hear, like he feared he would be giving the rest of the NFL some sort of advantage with knowledge of his little nugget.

"Troy gets even faster on game day ...

"That's his will, his want-to."

Polamalu's performance was all the more remarkable because it came a week after he was concussed early in the game against New Orleans. That injury didn't draw quite the same attention that Ben Roethlisberger's concussion did a few weeks earlier, but it probably should have. Polamalu is as valuable to the Steelers' defense as Big Ben is to the offense.

"We've got the best doctor in the country, maybe in the world," Steelers coach Bill Cowher said of team neurological surgeon, Dr. Joseph Maroon. "If he says a player is not at risk, that doesn't just put my mind to rest. It puts Troy's to rest."

Polamalu said he never considered not playing yesterday. "That was my mind-set the whole time. You've got to approach it that way or you'd never be prepared to play at the end of the week."

The Browns certainly wish Polamalu had taken the day off. Winslow said as much before the game when he called him "phenomenal."

"He's the best player I've ever seen at safety. He's on a different level."

It was just that way until the final play of the game when Polamalu leaped higher than a man 5 feet 10 has a right to leap to get a hand on Frye's desperation pass in the end zone. It was just enough of a deflection to keep Edwards from making a miraculous catch.

"He's just one of those few guys in the league who's special," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith would say moments later.

"I'm talking about guys like Randy Moss, Reggie Bush, Troy ... You see them, you see they have something special. They have a little different speed, a little different talent, a little different something.

"A gift from God. That's what it is. A gift from God."

Amen.


Ron Cook can be reached at rcook@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1525.


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