Steelers' Polamalu still poses threat to Patriots

Steelers' Polamalu still poses threat to Patriots
November 1, 2013, 12:15 pm
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FOXBORO – The Steelers you’d grown to hate are – for the most part – gone.

The iteration of the rivalry predated Belichick and Brady and dated back to 1996 when the Patriots knocked the Steelers off 28-3 in the playoffs then got paid back with a pair of soul-crushing losses in 1997, including a 7-6 loss at Three Rivers.

The 2001 playoffs went through Pittsburgh, Gillette Stadium was christened with a 2002 pummeling of the Steelers, the Patriots NFL-record winning streak was cracked by the Steelers in 2004 but New England got payback in the 2004 AFC title game. The Steelers got spanked in 2007 after Anthony Smith opened his yap and the Steelers came back and ripped the Brady-less Patriots in 2008. In 2010, the Patriots turned their season around in Pittsburgh and in 2011, the defending champion Steelers got their revenge.  

All those great but loathsome Steelers – Joey Porter, Hines Ward, James Harrison – they’re gone now.

Yet Troy Polamalu keeps on keeping on. At 32, now in his 11th season in the league, Polamalu keeps chasing footballs from his safety spot like a lab chasing Frisbees.

“He’s got a love for the game, he’s got such intensity out there,” Tom Brady said this week. “He’s got great instincts and when you have those type of instincts and he really has the ability to use those instincts. He’s not really in a system where there are clearly defined roles. He’s just a playmaker for them. You have to account for him on every play. You can’t just go, ‘Well, he’s going to be here.’ He may have half the field and he’s two yards from a line of scrimmage and making a play in the backfield. You just can’t take for granted, you have to keep your eyes out and keep your eyes open for him and hope that we can get a guy to block him. He’s a great player.”

The Patriots have used Polamalu’s penchant for wild play against him over the years. Play-action that’s caught Polamalu sprinting toward the line while a wideout sprints past him and into the clear where Polamalu maybe should have been? We’ve seen that.

But there’s enough tape of Polamalu showing up in places he has no business being – and ruining plays – to keep Brady wary.

“Even though he’s a safety, he still makes plays in the backfield,” said Brady. “He can do both. You go, ‘We can maybe get him on this splay.’ You try and then he’s deep where he should be. He’s just got those instincts where he’s going to take the chance when he knows and it’s calculated, a lot like Ed Reed does, like some of the best safeties I’ve ever played against. They know when the moment is, they feel it and that’s when they hit it. It’s not going to be every play, it’s not going to be every third down, it’s just when he feels that we’re going to run and wherever we’re going to run it, that’s where he’s going to go.”

When Brady has a fleet of weapons to work with, it’s easier to make Polamalu into his own worst enemy. This season, though, Brady has few sure things. And between protection problems and uncertain route-running, it’s not hard to figure out where the ball is going to go. Especially on third-and-several, which is where the Patriots have found themselves frequently this year.

“You can say that he’s guessing, taking chances, but I’d say he’s right most of the time; most of the time he makes the right decision,” opined Bill Belichick. “Whether some of those plays are called blitzes or he just blitzes on his own, I don’t know exactly how they do it. But there are times where you look at it and say, ‘That’s not really where you’re supposed to be.’ But where he is, is the right place to be. He’s right in the middle of the play or he’s doing something that’s disruptive to the offense. However that’s orchestrated I don’t know, but you can’t just let him run free and ruin the game.”

Many times over the years, the Patriots offense has had the last laugh at Polamalu. But if New England wants to leave the field smiling on Sunday, it better keep track of Polamalu.

“Call it whatever you want to call it, but he knows where the ball is or where it’s going,” said Belichick. “And he gets to the right place at the right time way, way, way more often than he’s wrong.”