Steelers' Troy Polamalu becoming a more vocal leader
The conscience of the Steelers, soft-spoken as it can be, and the soul of their defense is talking about the plight of forgotten military veterans when he spies a TV camera headed his way.
Troy Polamalu pauses in the corner of the Steelers locker room where he dresses and turns around to pull on a shirt. He apologizes for the interruption before continuing to champion one of the causes in which he is active.
What is at odds with the scene: Polamalu has been anything but camera-shy this season. Or shy, period.
Polamalu has, in no particular order, appeared on "The T.Ocho Show," spoken out against NFL owners who are set to lock out the players in March and admonished his own teammates, albeit away from public view.
Polamalu stepping out of the background is a development that has been welcomed by his coaches and teammates.
And it certainly hasn't diminished his game, as Polamalu has thrust himself into the discussion for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, particularly with his play in the past month.
When Polamalu chastised himself after intercepting two passes against the Bengals — the strong safety returned one of them for a game-changing touchdown — it was consistent with the new approach he has taken.
He has called out teammates this season, something he rarely used to do. And Polamalu refused to spare himself even though a foolish and selfish (his words) lateral did not rate as more than a footnote in the Steelers' 23-7 win until the best safety in the game (Hines Ward's words) shed a few tears over it.
The scene that played out as Polamalu talked to reporters showed just how seriously he takes his commitment to his teammates.
"He's always been a guy that's been quiet and humble and not really talked a lot, but you can see the leadership coming out of him this year," Steelers linebacker and defensive captain James Farrior said. "He's been very vocal, and that's good for us because when we see Troy talking, when we see him get fired up, that just drives the team more."
Said Steelers free safety Ryan Clark, "It's a good thing for him that people are starting to see that he has a personality."
Setting an example
Polamalu acknowledges he has been different this season.
But, just as he regularly does when asked about his play, the five-time Pro Bowler downplays its impact on the Steelers.
"I just think when something needs to be said, I'll say it whether it's encouragement or sometimes discouragement," Polamalu said. "I'm not a James Farrior, who's a real leader, or a Hines Ward, who's our offensive leader."
Even if that is the case, his words carry considerable weight in the Steelers' locker room. That is in large part because of the example Polamalu sets — and not just on the field.
Polamalu, the most requested Steelers player for Make-A-Wish experiences, regularly visits cancer patients at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh after Friday practices.
Polamalu also donates time and money to veterans, and he hosted a group of them for a game at Heinz Field earlier this season.
What is almost as noteworthy as how much Polamalu gives back: He does it with as little fanfare as possible.
"We're all affected by different things, so we're all motivated by different things to help out certain issues," said Polamalu, who has two sons with his wife, Theodora, including one that was born in September. "Children happen to be one of mine, because as a parent it's just something that hits close to home."
The same, unfortunately for Polamalu, also can be said about injuries.
The ninth-year veteran hurt his left knee twice last season and missed 11 games. The time he was forced to watch his teammates had a profound effect on Polamalu.
"I learned a valuable lesson of how to appreciate things, as cliched as it sounds, but I also really learned a lot from a football standpoint," said Polamalu, who has played in every game this season. "I remember last year when I'm watching the games I'm like, 'Man, I don't understand why we're not doing this' or 'How didn't he see it that way, because that would have been an easy interception.' "
Polamalu saw the game from a coach's perspective, and he fused what he learned with the perspective he has as a player. That may be one reason why he has been more vocal this season.
"I don't care why he's doing it," Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton said, "I like that he's doing it. He talks to players more. He talks to me more."
Play still does his talking
That is not to say Polamalu has become Clark, his best friend on the Steelers and perhaps the chattiest player on the team. And if he prefers to largely let his play do the talking, there is good reason for that.
Polamalu has been as big a difference-maker as any NFL defensive player this season. His sack of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco earlier this month is arguably the most important play of the Steelers' season, and it came after Polamalu crept up to the line of scrimmage.
The 5-foot-10, 207-pounder remains as difficult as ever for opposing quarterbacks and offensive coordinators to account for, because he is as effective blitzing as he is playing at the back end of a two-deep zone.
The latitude the Steelers' coaches give Polamalu is not without its drawbacks.
In the 13-10 win at Baltimore, Polamalu tried to jump a pass route in the flat. That caused cornerback Bryant McFadden to pick up tight end Ed Dickson and allowed Donte Stallworth a free run in the Steelers' defensive backfield.
Stallworth caught a 67-yard pass, though the Steelers later forced a punt.
"Sometimes he's feast-or-famine," Horton said of Polamalu. "I kind of compare it to (Baseball Hall of Famer) Reggie Jackson. Reggie had a lot of home runs, but he also had a lot of strikeouts. You have to let (Polamalu) be creative, and we do and he's a special player and so he has a lot more freedom than you would give somebody else."
One thing the Steelers coaches have to remind Polamalu from time to time is that he is a special player, not a superhuman one.
"Sometimes I think he expects (so much) out of himself where I think he does press some, like it's, 'I've got to make a play. I've got to make a play,' " Horton said. "We stress to him all the time, 'It will come to you. Just do what you do.' He's not Superman, he's Troy."Additional Information:
Pick off artists
Strong safety Troy Polamalu cracked the Steelers' top 10 in career interceptions after picking off two passes in a 23-7 win against the Bengals last Sunday. Here is a look at the players in front of him, four of whom are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame:
1. Mel Blount, 1970-83: 57
2. Jack Butler, 1951-59: 52
3. Donnie Shell, 1974-87: 51
4. Rod Woodson, 1987-96: 38
5. Dwayne Woodruff, 1979-90: 37
6. Mike Wagner, 1971-80: 36
7 (tie). Darren Perry, 1992-98: 32
7 (tie). Jack Ham, 1971-82: 32
9. Jack Lambert, 1974-84: 28
10. Polamalu, 2003-present: 26Additional Information:
Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu is tied for first in the AFC in interceptions and tied for second in the NFL in that category. Here are the league leaders in interceptions:
Asante Samuel, Eagles: 7
DeAngelo Hall, Redskins: 6
Devin McCourty, Patriots: 6
Aqib Talib, Buccaneers: 6
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