It started in the first game, this season-full of spectacular moments, and it started the way it always does with Troy Polamalu, with a play rooted in instinct but based on what he had been watching, what he had been studying, all day.
Late in the season opener against the Atlanta Falcons, Polamalu went to defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau and asked him to call something that would allow him to make a play on wide receiver Roddy White, who had tortured the Steelers with 13 catches. Most of White's catches were to the right sideline, in the direction of cornerback Bryant McFadden.
So, with 1:45 remaining in a game that was tied, 9-9, Polamalu struck the way he always seems to strike -- making a play in extraordinary fashion. On first-and-10 from the Atlanta 21, anticipating the same sideline throw to White, Polamalu broke from the hash marks on quarterback Matt Ryan's pass and made a lunging interception at the Falcons 30, looking more like Jerry Rice than a 215-pound safety the way he toe-tapped the turf near the sideline stripe.
Jeff Reed missed the field goal that would have won the game in regulation, but Polamalu's interception was the first of many game-changing plays the six-time Pro Bowl safety would make in 2010 -- none bigger than the night of Dec. 5 in Baltimore. It is the reason why the Steelers, not the Ravens, are playing host to Saturday's AFC Divisional playoff game at Heinz Field as the AFC North champion.
"I appreciate that he's really a very special player," LeBeau said. "I'm blessed to be able to coach him."
Ed Reed missed the first six games of the Ravens season because he was on the physically unable to perform list with a hip injury. All that did was prevent him from making, say, 20 interceptions in 2010.
Despite playing in only 10 games Reed, a seven-time Pro Bowl safety, still led the National Football League with eight interceptions.
One of those games was in Cleveland, a game the Ravens needed to win to remain tied with the Steelers for first place. And it was pure Reed -- studying, analyzing, always in position to make a play.
Midway through the second quarter, leading 10-7, Reed took a look at the Browns' formation on third-and-5 and told cornerback Lardarius Webb that the play might be a quick out to receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. He instructed Webb to jump the route to prevent the quick throw.
When Massaquoi ran a double move and headed deep down the sideline, Reed was there to intercept quarterback Colt McCoy's pass.
"Instincts," said Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome. "What sets him apart from good players is that he's so instinctive. But he has the preparation that goes along with instincts."
By now, it is almost pointless to debate which player -- Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed -- is the more dynamic safety, the bigger playmaker, the ultimate game-changer.
Reed's 54 career interceptions and 13 career touchdowns since joining the league in 2002 are unrivaled by his peers, even Polamalu.
But Polamalu's style, diving over the line of scrimmage to make tackles, chopping balls from a quarterback's grasp, intercepting passes that look as though they are going to fall harmlessly to the turf, cannot be duplicated by another player in the NFL, maybe even in league history.
"They're the best two I've seen since I've been in the league," said Steelers backup quarterback Byron Leftwich, who played against both safeties when he was with the Jacksonville Jaguars. "I don't like to compare guys to older guys, but Troy and Ed, they're so instinctive and that allows them to make those plays. Those plays don't happen by accident. It's not a coincidence they happen. It's because those guys have instincts very few people have."
It is nothing new for Reed and Polamalu to be on the field at the same time, which is what will happen at 4:30 p.m. Saturday when the Steelers (12-4) and Ravens (13-4) play at Heinz Field, their third meeting this season. But rarely have they competed for the same prize -- a spot in the AFC Championship game -- with each playing at such a high level.
Reed had four of his league-best eight interceptions in his team's final two victories. That he also led the team with 16 passes defensed in just 10 games is another chapter in what will be a Hall of Fame career.
Despite missing two games with an injury near his right Achilles tendon, Polamalu has five interceptions in his past five games, one a 45-yard scoring return against the Cincinnati Bengals. But included in that stretch was a series of big plays in which he dramatically shaped the outcome of three consecutive games. The biggest of them all: His sack on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco that led to the winning touchdown in the Steelers 13-10 victory in Baltimore -- the game that gave the Steelers control of the AFC North and allowed them to apply the lockdown on one of the first-round playoff byes.
"The one thing you notice is that they both have great hands," Ravens Coach John Harbaugh said. "They both can make spectacular plays on the football that, for a defensive back, is huge. A lot of times defensive backs are defensive backs because they don't have great hands. They have great body control and, obviously, the instincts, awareness and understanding of the game. They always seem to show up in the right place."
Then Harbaugh added, "They're both phenomenal players."
"At some point, those guys were very good offensive players when they went to college, but, for whatever reason, [coaches] felt they could get them on the field sooner by letting them play defense," Newsome was saying the other day on the phone. "They rank right up there with Rod Woodson, Deion Sanders, Charles Woodson, Ronnie Lott. They're in that family."
Reed doesn't just intercept passes; he picks them, returns them, and, in a lot of instances, scores with them.
He averages 26.6 yards per interception return, which ranks first in NFL history among players with at least 30 interceptions. His 1,438 return yards also ranks first in NFL history.
But, for all his heroics, Reed has never been much of a factor against the Steelers, especially Ben Roethlisberger. In nine career games against Roethlisberger, Reed has just one interception, and that was in 2006.
Polamalu is a different story.
He changed the landscape of the Steelers 13-10 victory in Baltimore on Dec. 5 when, on second-and-5, he blitzed from the blind side and chopped the ball from Flacco's right hand as he was about to throw. Outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley scooped the fumble and ran 19 yards to the Ravens 9, setting up the winning touchdown.
But his most numbing play against the Ravens came in the 2008 AFC Championship game when he picked off Flacco and returned the interception 40 yards for a touchdown, cementing a 23-14 victory that sent the Steelers on their way to an unprecedented sixth Super Bowl title.
"Their study is part of their success," LeBeau said. "They're going to make a lot of plays because they're great football players. Troy has the ability to program off of study and apply it in games. A lot of people can assimilate knowledge from the video, but it loses something when you transfer it to the actual game. But, Troy, he usually makes more plays."
Steelers safety Will Allen, who played six seasons with cornerback Ronde Barber with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, said he thinks Polamalu and Reed would still make those plays even if they didn't study film.
"They have certain intangibles of the game where their instincts take over," Allen said. "They're used to making plays. They're used to being in that situation, so, if the ball is in the air or if there is a tipped ball or if they see something the offense has been doing repeatedly, they pick up on it quickly. It becomes instinctual at that point. It's something they learned at young age and developed as a professional."
Reed and Polamalu share another common trait: Each is allowed a large amount of freedom on the field.
Earlier this season, on a goal-line sneak by Titans quarterback Kerry Collins, Polamalu dove over the line of scrimmage at the snap count and landed on Collins before he could even lunge forward. "That's Troy being Troy," linebacker James Farrior said.
But, when he tried it again in the regular-season finale in Cleveland, Browns quarterback Colt McCoy was able to elude Polamalu's diving attempt.
"We prefer he not quite go that far off the diving board -- literally, off the diving board," LeBeau said, referring to the freedom with which Polamalu is allowed to play.
Said Newsome, "People say they both are gamblers and both can be out of position. But when they're doing that, it's based on film study and the tendencies they see. That's why they're able to take gambles. It's freedom within the scheme."
And the ability to make game-changing plays.
First Published January 14, 2011 5:00 AM