Polamalu centerpiece of Steelers' defense

Safety play is often overlooked, but each remaining playoff team has a productive and impressive tandem in the secondary.

Updated: January 19, 2006, 2:59 PM ET
By Len Pasquarelli | ESPN.com

No one in the Pittsburgh locker room on Sunday was surprised that Pro Bowl strong safety Troy Polamalu was at the vortex of one of the most controversial officiating calls in recent postseason history, the gaffe in which game referee Pete Morelli overturned an interception by the Steelers' star defender.

After all, teammates emphasized, the versatile Polamalu seems to be in the middle of just about everything the Steelers do defensively.

"Just look at his numbers," said Pittsburgh weakside linebacker Joey Porter. "He's near the top [of the Steelers' defense] in tackles. He blitzes, he covers, he does it all. Just find the football and you're going to find him."

He's just a rare athlete, a guy who can hit and run, who can play up [close to the line of scrimmage] or back in a Cover 2 look. He makes the plays you expect [him] to make and then, like [Sunday], he makes the plays where you just rub your eyes.
Steelers def. coordinator Dick LeBeau on Troy Polamalu

Conspicuous because of the long black mane that dangles well below his helmet (and that hasn't been cut in nearly three years), Polamalu certainly isn't difficult to spot on the field. But more than his 'do, it is Polamalu's diversity that makes him such a center of attention on a defense for which he is asked to perform myriad functions.

For a long time now, and with virtually every franchise for which he has been employed, Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau has constructed exotic schemes around the talents of whirling-dervish safeties. LeBeau built the zone-blitz models with which he is most associated around David Fulcher, a linebacker-sized free safety with the Cincinnati Bengals in the mid-1980s, and he has used the position to key his schemes ever since.

Conventional wisdom is that LeBeau uses the linebackers in his 3-4 alignment to create chaos, but the safeties are his provocateurs of choice -- and Polamalu, the Steelers' first-round choice in the 2003 NFL draft, is a perfect fit for helping promulgate confusion.

The former Southern California star, whose quiet nature belies his nickname, "Taz," shortened by his teammates from the original handle of "Tasmanian Devil," is sort of a hybrid defender. At 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds, Polamalu is an explosive hitter, but he is also blessed with great burst and a 40-yard speed in the 4.4s. He is one of just two starting safeties remaining in the playoffs who showed up in every key defensive category during the 2005 regular season. Polamalu registered 100 tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble, one recovery, two interceptions and 11 passes defensed.

The only other safety among the Final Four teams with a notation in every one of those categories is the underrated Nick Ferguson of the Denver Broncos.

"A lot of the things we do," LeBeau said after Sunday's upset victory over the Indianapolis Colts, "we're able to do because of him. He's just a rare athlete, a guy who can hit and run, who can play up [close to the line of scrimmage] or back in a Cover 2 look. He makes the plays you expect [him] to make and then, like [Sunday], he makes the plays where you just rub your eyes. And he's the kind of player who doesn't usually make the same mistake twice. He can put stuff behind him and move on."

Indeed, much overlooked from Sunday's game is that on the play directly following the reversal of his interception Polamalu nearly stepped in front of a pass for Colts tight end Dallas Clark -- and he would have scored if he had been a half-step quicker. It's also notable that on four of Pittsburgh's five sacks of Peyton Manning the strong safety was blitzing and helped create pass-rush opportunities for the Steelers' linebackers.

"It's just a fun defense to play in, because I get to do so many different things, and some of them all in the same series," Polamalu said. "There's more discipline to what we do than a lot of people seem to realize, but we try to create the perception that we can bring [defenders] from anywhere and at anytime. [LeBeau] does a tremendous job every week in dreaming up new wrinkles for us. We all benefit from it. Dick is just a coach who feels like the play of the safeties is important."

In fact, this weekend figures to enhance the profile of the safety position in both conference championship matchups. Often an overlooked position, the safety spots for all of the final four qualifiers are key, and Polamalu and teammate Chris Hope (97 tackles, three interceptions and seven passes defensed) aren't the only standout tandem.

A look at the safety duets for the other three teams in the conference title round:

Safety
Denver Broncos

Profile
2005 SEASON STATISTICS
Tot Ast Solo FF Sack Int
62 45 17 4 4 2

Denver: In his 13th NFL season, the old (35) and dogged John Lynch has learned a new trick, as coordinator Larry Coyer has expanded the seven-time Pro Bowl performer's role in the aggressive blitz scheme the Broncos have used this year. After notching only eight sacks in his first dozen seasons, Lynch, who has become a bit of a liability in coverage the last few seasons, had four sacks in 2005. First-year starter Nick Ferguson, largely a special-teams player much of his career, and with only 12 starts entering the season, had five interceptions and 12 passes defensed. The six-year veteran, who had one interception coming into 2005, also recorded 81 tackles and gave Denver much better range than did Kenoy Kennedy, his hard-hitting but coverage-challenged predecessor.

Carolina: For most of his nine-year career, all spent with the Panthers, the underrated Mike Minter has been the leader of the team's secondary. That didn't change in 2005, even though Minter was suddenly surrounded by more talent than at any other point in his tenure. His 12 passes defensed answered back at the critics who suggested Minter had lost a half step and, as usual, he was a force in supporting the run. One of the biggest moves the Carolina staff made was inserting journeyman veteran Marlon McCree into the lineup at strong safety, replacing first-round draft choice Thomas Davis after one game. A five-year veteran, McCree was one of the NFL's biggest free-agent bargains, notching 91 tackles, three interceptions and eight passes defensed while playing for a minimum base salary. His play really pulled together the Carolina secondary.

Seattle: The loss of hard-hitting Ken Hamlin, who suffered head injuries in an early-season fight outside a Seattle nightspot, certainly took some physical edge away from the Seahawks' interior secondary. But Marquand Manuel, a waiver-wire pickup in 2004, still tallied 71 tackles and played well against the run. Former college linebacker Michael Boulware, who made the switch to safety as a rookie in 2004, demonstrated the same big-play mentality that marked his debut season in the league. Boulware had 73 tackles, two sacks, four interceptions and five passes defensed.

Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here Insider.

ALSO SEE