Finally healthy again, Polamalu gives Steelers' defense options
Sometimes he's in the slot covering the likes of A.J. Green. Other times he walks up late from his strong safety position and blitzes.
Against Adrian Peterson and the run-heavy Minnesota Vikings, he was the de facto fifth linebacker and eighth man in the box.
It's also not unusual to see Troy Polamalu lined up in between LaMarr Woodley and Cameron Heyward in the Steelers' six defensive backs look, then sprint back to the deep third of the field moments before the snap.
Then you have those Polamalu leaps.
Through the first month of the season, Steelers opponents have been playing that not-so-fun game of “Where's Troy?”
“To be honest, I have no idea where he's at,” defensive end Brett Keisel said, “and I don't really care either because you know he's going to be around the ball.”
So if his own teammate doesn't know where he is, imagine what opposing offenses are up against trying to locate the ubiquitous Polamalu.
“Where he is supposed to be and where he is going to be, you just never really know,” cornerback Ike Taylor said.
That's the way defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau wants it.
After a rigorous offseason rehab regimen, the seven-time Pro Bowler resembles the player who was the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year three seasons ago.
“He is a defensive coordinator's dream because he can do so many things,” LeBeau said. “Now the defense doesn't change when he isn't in there, but the way we call it does. We call more stuff to free him up when he is in there.”
LeBeau comes up with different ways to use Polamalu, but there's one common theme no matter what he calls.
“He puts me where the action is,” Polamalu said, “and that's the beautiful thing about this defense.”
Polamalu is third on the team with 14 solo tackles and first with seven stops (a solo tackle that results in a failed offensive play), but that doesn't indicate his true value.
Polamalu has been used almost equally in coverage as he has run defense, which is a shift from the norm. Last season while nursing a calf injury, Polamalu spent nearly twice as much time in coverage as at the line — something unusual for a safety.
“That's what makes Troy different from the other people,” Taylor said. “When you are that instinctive and when a coach doesn't have to tell you what's going on out there and you are able to make plays like that, you have to let Troy be Troy.”
Even if that means letting Polamalu sprint from one side of the formation to the other just before the snap. Or time Jake Locker's snap count perfectly for a loss.
“He has some freedom, but it is framed within the defense,” LeBeau said. “We try to develop into his creativity, which is obviously very good and productive for us. He doesn't have carte blanche.”
But it's close. And the reason LeBeau has that option of “letting Troy be Troy” is because Polamalu is healthy again.
During the previous four seasons, Polamalu missed 22 games. The Steelers went 11-11 and allowed nearly five more points per game without him.
“Just having a healthy Troy out there … just having his presence, let alone having a healthy Troy out there, brings a whole other dimension to the defense,” Taylor said.