PITTSBURGH — The Atlanta Braves once prized Oregon high school athlete Troy Polamalu as a prospect, even though they knew his heart was in football.
They loved his speed and, most of all, how he played with enthusiasm, passion and a determination to win.
Polamalu has long since established himself as one of the NFL’s premier defensive players, but it seems as if he hasn’t totally forgotten his baseball roots.
What Mariano Rivera is to the Yankees, Polamalu is to the Steelers. When a game needs to be won, Polamalu is their closer. Give him a situation to save a game, and Polamalu often does it.
The five-time Pro Bowl safety made one of the NFL’s biggest defensive plays of the season Sunday in Baltimore, surging in on quarterback Joe Flacco late in the fourth quarter to tomahawk chop the ball away and cause a fumble that led to the Steelers’ decisive touchdown and a 13-10 victory.
It might have been the play of a career for a normal player, but Polamalu certainly isn’t that. He made a similar game-altering play the week before in Buffalo and another earlier this season at Tennessee.
“You’ve been seeing that from him for years,” safety Ryan Clark said. “We try to put him in position to where he can do that. You want him to be comfortable, and he just makes great plays.”
The kind that can change the course of a season.
If the Ravens (8-4) had held on to their 10-6 lead, they would have effectively led the Steelers (9-3) by two games with four to play in the AFC North. The Steelers would be staring at the likelihood of no home playoff games, and a difficult-to-traverse, three-game road trip to the Super Bowl.
Instead, the Steelers lead the division, own the tiebreaker and, with a three-game homestand about to begin Sunday against the reeling Bengals (2-10), are in position to secure the No. 2 seed in the AFC playoffs and a first-round bye. In the last 18 seasons, under coaches Mike Tomlin and Bill Cowher, they’ve never once blown a division lead this late in a season.
No wonder, with a closer like Polamalu. He finished the Ravens game with five tackles, a sack and a forced fumble and twice caused hurried throws by Flacco.
“He’s capable of doing that any week against any opponent and all season long, every week,” said Carson Palmer, the Bengals quarterback who once was Polamalu’s roommate at Southern Cal. “He’s really made some very significant plays in games at very significant points in games.”
The week before, with Buffalo attempting to complete a potential game-winning drive late in the fourth quarter, Polamalu stretched out to make an interception near the goal line that eventually sent the game into overtime, where the Steelers won 19-16. It was his fourth interception this season.
In Tennessee, he timed a Titans’ snap so perfectly on a goal-line play with barely a minute remaining that he leaped over the offensive line and sacked Kerry Collins before Collins had taken a half-step.
To Tomlin, it wasn’t just that Polamalu turned the ball over with Baltimore trying to run down the clock, it was how he did it.
“A lot of guys would go in there and sack the quarterback,” Tomlin said. “He sees the game a little differently. That’s what makes him special. He (also) got the ball out.”
Polamalu credited defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau for calling the blitz, saying, “The coaches made a great call. I was surprised they were passing in that situation. Coach (LeBeau) was a step ahead.”
Clark marveled that the Ravens’ blockers left Polamalu unchecked, saying, “I think if I was an offensive coach, and I had to pick one guy to let go, Troy wouldn’t be that guy. But they let him go and he made an awesome play.”
“I was pretty shocked to see it myself,” Flacco said of seeing Polamalu flying toward him. “But that guy’s made (that) play in his career.”
Flacco, then a rookie, was attempting to lead a go-ahead drive late in the AFC championship game in Pittsburgh two seasons ago, only to have Polamalu return an interception 40 yards for a late touchdown that secured Pittsburgh’s 23-14 victory and sent them to the Super Bowl.
Palmer was victimized by Polamalu as a rookie, too. He not only intercepted a Palmer pass, he ran over his longtime friend en route to the end zone to close a 28-17 win in 2004.
“He’s played so well against us in so many other areas of the game — getting the defense aligned in certain calls; in the run game he’s been all over the place against us; he’s gotten some good moves on some pass rushing,” said Palmer, who opposes Polamalu again Sunday. “So his impact isn’t solely interceptions. He’s made some obviously great interceptions and great plays on the ball, but he can impact a game in a lot of other ways too.”
The Steelers were reminded again Sunday what they were missing last season when Polamalu was limited by injuries to five games, two of them incomplete games. They were 4-1 when he played but 5-6 when he didn’t.
Polamalu has been bothered this season by a sore Achilles’ tendon, but the Steelers have kept him on the field by severely restricting his practice time. Not that he needs much of it.
“We simply want to take every precaution to keep this man up and running,” Tomlin said. “It’s obvious he’s playing pretty good football and we want that to continue.”