Steelers safety Troy Polamalu dives for the end zone after intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown Dec. 8 against the Dolphins at Heinz Field.
By Gerry Dulac / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Life in the NFL is a myriad of moving parts, a cacophony of adjustments where defenses change alignments, coverages adapt to tendencies and players change positions.
It is not uncommon, for example, for a defensive end in college to be moved to outside linebacker in the NFL, a practice the Steelers have embraced for years. Nor is it out of the ordinary for a cornerback in the latter stages of his career to move to safety, something Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott each did in their Hall of Fame careers. Tackles move to guard, tight ends become wide receivers, quarterbacks become running backs. Move, move, move.
But it is not every day when a highly decorated safety who has been selected to seven Pro Bowls moves to linebacker. Inside linebacker, no less, where the traffic and confluence of 300-pound-plus linemen is at its greatest and nastiest.
But, then, Troy Polamalu is not your every-day player.
"That's why Troy is Troy," said defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, a Hall of Fame cornerback for 14 years with the Detroit Lions. "He's been one of the better defenders in this league for a long time, and that's one of the reasons. He studies hard, and he can take that knowledge and apply it instantly on the field."
Make no mistake, Polamalu remains as the Steelers' strong safety, a player still capable of making splash plays such as the 19-yard interception return for touchdown a week ago against the Miami Dolphins in which he -- and his flopping hair -- went hurtling across the pylon.
But, in the past month, he has been playing almost as much at linebacker because of the frequency with which the Steelers have been using a dime defensive package that features six defensive backs.
In that package, Polamalu moves to inside linebacker, replacing rookie Vince Williams, Cortez Allen comes in as the nickel back and veteran Will Allen takes over for Polamalu at safety. The Steelers used that package for 45 of 60 snaps against the Dolphins. It has become so much of their regular defense that all six defensive backs are introduced as starters before the game.
"I like being wherever the action is," Polamalu said.
At 5 feet 10 inches and 215 pounds, Polamalu is not your prototypical linebacker. But the Steelers are trying to take advantage of his explosiveness and ability to disrupt plays in the backfield in an attempt to create more turnovers and help stem the tide of big plays that has tormented their defense.
That will be put to the test tonight against the AFC North Division-leading Cincinnati Bengals (9-4), who are tied for the AFC lead with 13 pass plays of 40 yards or longer.
"He's done this quite a bit," said Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, a McDonald native and former linebacker coach with the Steelers. "It just gives an opportunity to get him closer to the football. He's a dynamic blitzer when he's up there, and you've got to account for him. Then he can drop out and run the different fire-zone pressures and the things they do because he understands the concepts of coverage so well."
A busy, busy man
It has been an odd year in many ways for Polamalu. He has not been on a losing team since his rookie season in 2003, when the Steelers were 6-10. But, in an 11-year career that has been interrupted by an assortment of injuries, he has played every snap this season -- one of three Steelers to do so (Ben Roethlisberger and Lawrence Timmons are the others).
That is a rarity for Polamalu, who has started all 16 games just once in the past five years (2011) and only four times in his career. In 2012, he missed nine games because of a calf injury.
Now, at 32, he basically is alternating between two positions, a task that requires him to know more assignments and play more different techniques than any player on the team.
"Anywhere that I can help out this team I'm willing to do, whether moving to inside backer, moving outside at corner," Polamalu said. "I'm going to do whatever I can to fill in the spaces.
"My preparation time definitely has to increase since I'm working on two positions, linebacker and safety. It just means I'm looking at different things. Not too many different things, but a few more."
Polamalu does not sit in on linebacker meetings, but, given the frequency with which he plays the position, nobody would be surprised if he did.
"He stretches his position like nobody else," defensive end Cameron Heyward said. "I can't name another player that has to do as much as him. I would never want to do as much as him."
"Troy always finds ways, regardless what position you want to put him at," cornerback Ike Taylor said. "He's one of the few people in the world who can do that."
But, with all his different responsibilities, is Polamalu being stretched too thin?
One of the reasons the Steelers use the dime package with Polamalu at linebacker is to help their run defense, which ranks 24th in the league. But they primarily use the defense in third-down and long-yardage situations.
Ironically, that defense was responsible for the two long runs by the Dolphins that set up touchdowns -- a 48-yard option by quarterback Ryan Tannehill and a 55-yarder by Daniel Thomas. They occurred, in part, because Polamalu played the wrong technique and was out of position on each play.
On Tannehill's run, Polamalu's responsibility was to scrape around the right side when Jarvis Jones tackled the fake to the running back, as he was supposed to do. But, because Polamalu bit briefly on run fake, he was late getting to the right side. In his defense, safety Will Allen was supposed to turn the play inside, back to Polamalu, but Allen was out of position, too.
On Thomas' 55-yard run, Polamalu again played the wrong technique. He said he was supposed to get outside the blocker -- Dolphins center Mike Pouncey, who pulled -- and turn the play back inside to Heyward. But Polamalu got caught inside and Thomas ran outside through the hole for 55 yards.
"I didn't do my job," Polamalu said. "I miss-fit it. I just miss-fit it. I just didn't get over to my gap."
None of this is to blame Polamalu for the runs. Rather, it is to point up that he is being asked to do a lot of different things in the Steelers defense. The multitude of different techniques for which he is responsible might be too much to ask of any one player.
"I've never had any second thoughts about what I ask Troy to do," LeBeau said. "He is a football genius, really, from that standpoint. Troy makes very, very, very few mental errors. He sometimes will make an error of commission, but, if you're a coach, that's the kind of errors that you can coach through and correct. He's going so hard and so fast and wanting to do so much sometimes that he ends up in the wrong place.
Then LeBeau added, "I would say mentally you could give him three or four more positions and he wouldn't have any trouble. That's my opinion."
Polamalu joked he might show up at training camp next year weighing "245-ish" and grow to 6-foot-2 if he is going to keep moving up in the defense.
"I figure five or six years from now, I'll be looking at end or nose [tackle]," Polamalu said, laughing. "I'll be balding by then, too."
Asked if he worried about the pounding Polamalu faces at linebacker, LeBeau said, "I did originally, but he's really played very well against the run."
For now, Polamalu will remain the rarest of hybrids -- a strong safety who also plays linebacker. He is probably headed to another Pro Bowl, despite the team's defensive shortcomings, but faces an offseason in which he could be asked to take a significant pay cut in 2014, a la James Harrison. Polamalu is scheduled to count nearly $10.9 million against the salary cap next year, the final year of his contract. His average annual salary of $9,866,667 is the highest among NFL safeties.
Right now, Polamalu is more focused on trying to curb the number of big plays against the Steelers defense, especially the pass.
In the previous two seasons combined (2011-2012), the Steelers allowed only four pass plays of 40 yards or longer. This year alone, they have already allowed 12, including a league-high seven of longer than 50 yards. And there are still three games to go.
"When you've been on defenses that really have made money on not allowing them at all or one in a season or two in a season, that's really surprising in both ways," Polamalu said. "How can we give up that much this year? And, as coach [Mike Tomlin] correctly described it, we were really good back then. I didn't know we were that good. But, living in the now, there are definitely some things that we can do better."
Whatever it is, Polamalu is willing to help any way he can.
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