Steelers' Polamalu, Ravens' Reed fuel teams' rivalry
Troy Polamalu walked into the Steelers' locker room Thursday wearing a confident smile, one reflective of a mending, self-assured strong safety ready to play for the first time in eight weeks.
Polamalu, forced to sit with an ailing calf muscle since Oct. 7, is determined to play Sunday against AFC North rival Baltimore with the Steelers' playoff fate in a perilous state.
Polamalu is hoping to thrust himself back into action partly because a fourth straight defeat to Baltimore would even the Steelers' record at 6-6 and leave them scrambling for a wild-card playoff berth.
Also, the five-time All-Pro can't resist a challenge — a head-to-head battle with Baltimore's oft-effusive All-Pro safety Ed Reed. For Polamalu, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry may be defined by their by presence, but mental and physical toughness factors into every outcome.
“I would say this game has been defined by the physicality,” Polamalu said. “The beautiful thing about it is we take football to the purest essence in the sense that the more physical team always wins this matchup.
“No matter where or what the circumstances are — or who's in the game — it's always been the most physical team that survives. Speaking on philosophy, (free safety) Ryan Clark and I always talk about the defense is only as good as the safety play.
“What it pretty much comes down to is you can blame the safety for every touchdown that happens. It's either a missed tackle, we're out of position, we didn't make a right key, we didn't communicate, or we didn't encourage enough. It's all part of the safety's role.”
Two of the best
Few have fulfilled their roles at safety better than Polamalu and Reed.
They have fueled arguably the most intense, competitive rivalry in the NFL over the past decade. They have dictated the outcome of most games with momentum-shifting plays or had a hand in a decisive turnover to solidify victory.
However, they haven't been nearly as effective this season. Polamalu's troublesome calf has limited him to five quarters. Reed has started every game, but the cumulative wear on his body has left him with slightly diminished skills.
Still, they are among the best safeties in the NFL. Their teams — and this rivalry — are better with them than without.
“This rivalry will always be intense,” Reed said. “Baltimore and Pittsburgh are two of the greatest organizations in the league, and it's bigger than us.
“From the top down, these are great teams, organizations, and the rivalry is always going to be what it is. Steelers-Ravens is special.”
They may have varying styles and personalities, but Polamalu and Reed are joined at the proverbial hip, in part, because in an era in which the Steelers and Ravens have dominated the division, they have been the most dominant playmakers.
“You think of this rivalry and you definitely think of those two guys,” said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. “They've been the two best safeties in football for years now. They play different styles with similar results.”
Polamalu, a soft-spoken, 10-year veteran, doesn't exert himself with mindless chatter. He largely leads by example, often sacrificing his body with punishing blows that deter running backs and receivers from daring to challenge him.
With Polamalu set to return to the lineup, Harbaugh figures he isn't likely to see the same defense Baltimore faced two weeks ago.
“We don't treat it any differently because you have to look at the player playing the position, and you have to understand the structure of it,” Harbaugh said. “Troy has a little more leeway in terms of changing the defense on the run.
“He does a great job of communicating that to the other defensive backs and getting them all coordinated on the same page. He's a guy you really have to track and can't really be certain about where he's going to be playing.
“Troy is a guy who can show up anywhere at any time,” Harbaugh said. “He's got tremendous football intelligence, and he makes a big difference.”
Reed, a self-proclaimed one-man wrecking crew, is the consummate ball hawk. He is fearless, seemingly going all-in on every snap — an innate personality trait that has enabled him to intercept five passes and recover three fumbles against the Steelers.
In contrast, Polamalu has nary an interception but two forced fumbles in 14 regular-season games against Baltimore. He has focused mostly on defending a usually potent Ravens ground game.
“In my opinion, (Reed) is the best safety to play the game,” Polamalu said. “I tell him that to his face all the time. I truly believe it. I've studied him, and I've tried to incorporate things from his game into my game — a lot of it I'm not able to do.
“I learned the importance of film study from him. He is the prototype and what anyone would want at safety. People can say you want big hits, but this game is about the ball. You can't score without it. When you get someone back there who can get the ball, that's what it's all about.”
Sometimes, it's about attitude. And the Steelers, linebacker Larry Foote said, are a different team mentally with Polamalu.
“I think Troy is a little more physical and he makes more tackles,” Foote said. “He's up to the line of scrimmage more. I'm not sure if Ed Reed is built for that.”
‘They impact the game'
Polamalu and Reed, it seems, were built to win.
Polamalu has two Super Bowl rings, while Reed seeks his first. They, too, are the nucleus of two historically stingy defensive units that traditionally keep their teams in playoff contention.
“They impact the game because you have to account for them all the time,” Foote added. “They are among a handful of guys in the league you have to build your game plan around.”
The Ravens survived the Steelers, 13-10, in their first meeting two weeks ago. Yet even with Polamalu in street clothes, veteran Will Allen stepped in to help frustrate a Baltimore offense that executed flawlessly in tallying 55 points against Oakland the week before.
Even though the Steelers' defense is ranked No. 1 overall — first against the pass, fifth against the run — it's lacking turnovers. The Steelers are minus-10 in takeaways, which illustrates why even at half-strength Polamalu's presence can positively influence the defense.
“Troy makes crucial plays in crucial moments,” Allen said. “It's what we need now, especially with (quarterback) Ben (Roethlisberger probably) out. We haven't had many turnovers, so it's something we're missing without Troy.”
“Troy's shoes are big for any man to fill,” Foote said. “Will did a great job for us, but Troy is special, and no one compares to him. It's not a shot at Will; it's just that Troy is a freak.”
The Steelers have produced only four interceptions in Polamalu's absence, including two by linebacker Lawrence Timmons. Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco has protected the ball this season, throwing only seven interceptions on 393 passes.
“The thing about playing the position here is you have the responsibility of creating plays,” Polamalu said. “Or getting guys in right positions and tweaking the defense to free somebody up. (Defensive coordinator Dick) LeBeau gives us the freedom to do that to get the matchups he wants.”
It's hard to imagine two defensive players having such sway in a rivalry. Their influence can't be gauged by numbers. Typically, they are they are pace-setters whom teammates follow without pause.
The Ravens are hardly the same intimidating defense without Reed. Even with his aging legs, he still possesses the youthful instincts to fire up a 24th-ranked defense that in the past four games has played better than its uncharacteristic numbers.
“We've been playing each other for the longest time, and we've been at the top of our division, and usually it comes down to a play or two. The players who make those plays are Ed and Troy,” cornerback Ike Taylor said. “They have a feel for every play or what is about to happen.
“I love to watch these guys work. When we play the Ravens, I get up on the sidelines to see what Reed does.”
Reed isn't sure his impact plays against the Steelers will define his career. But it's hard to imagine his performances in this rivalry will ever be reduced to a footnote.
“I think my career will be looked at as a whole and not just against the Steelers,” he said. “I cherish these games, though. I approach these games the same way I do every other game. I love these rivalry games.”
Ralph N. Paulk is staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.