PITTSBURGH — OK, so Troy Polamalu isn’t perfect.
Polamalu’s 45-yard interception return for a touchdown rallied the Pittsburgh Steelers after they fell behind Cincinnati 7-0 on Sunday, and he later sealed their 23-7 victory with a second interception that ended the Bengals’ best drive since the first quarter.
So why was Polamalu nearly in tears afterward, apologetic to a fault about a rare error in judgment?
After making his second interception, Polamalu — about to be tackled — sailed a spiraling lateral across the field to teammate Bryant McFadden. The ball bounced around before McFadden fell on it, and the Bengals easily could have recovered it.
To Polamalu, one lapse ruined an afternoon’s worth of mostly exceptional work.
“It was incredibly arrogant and selfish,” Polamalu said. “I represent something bigger than myself — my faith, my family and this team. I’ll try to never yet that happen again. It was just a very arrogant play.”
Polamalu’s hastiness to keep a play going led to a rare chastising from defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who almost never questions his five-time Pro Bowl safety’s instincts. LeBeau doesn’t want Polamalu attempting such a risky play in a closer game.
“I think it is a great teaching tool moving forward,” coach Mike Tomlin said.
So might a video of Polamalu’s ever-growing succession of textbook-worthy plays over a season in which one of the NFL’s most recognizable players has re-established himself as one of the few who can regularly change the course of games. Each of the last three weeks, a single Polamalu play has turned around a Steelers game.
“Troy and I always talk,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said. “I tell him to do something magical … and Troy always does it.”
Polamalu’s interception at the goal line late in regulation Nov. 28 in Buffalo possibly prevented one of the NFL’s biggest upsets this season. The Joe Flacco fumble that Polamalu caused Dec. 5 gave the Steelers the ball at the Ravens’ 9-yard line and set up their only touchdown during a 13-9 victory. Because they won, the Steelers lead the AFC North, rather than Baltimore.
“It’s going to help when you have Troy back there doing the stuff he does,” linebacker James Farrior said. “He’s playing amazing right now, and I definitely think he’s a candidate for defensive player of the year. When you got him back there, and the guys up front communicating and playing good, sound defense, it’s going to make your team better.”
The NFL’s defensive player of the week for two weeks running, Polamalu’s impact on the first-place Steelers (10-3) can’t be measured entirely by statistics as the regular season winds down, although his six interceptions are one fewer than his career high of seven in 2008.
Sometimes what he doesn’t do is as important as what he does. He’ll line up near the line of scrimmage as if he might blitz, possibly causing a quarterback to change a play call at the line of scrimmage, only to sprint backward into pass coverage moments before the ball is snapped — disrupting a play even before it has been run.
No, the Steelers know what they’ve got in Polamalu, because they have plenty of evidence to suggest they aren’t the same team when they don’t have him.
At this time a year ago, with Polamalu out with an injured left knee, the Steelers were 6-7 and on a five-game losing streak. With Polamalu sidelined, they lost five games by 3 points, one by 6 and another by 7.
This season, with Polamalu not missing a game yet despite a bothersome ankle/Achilles’ tendon injury that causes Tomlin to rest him during Wednesday and Thursday practices, the Steelers have three victories by 3 points or fewer, and two by 6 points.
Is Polamalu entirely the reason for the Steelers winning the close games they lost last season? No, but try getting one of his teammates to say that.
One statistic that shows how Polamalu’s presence makes the Steelers better: Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer targeted wide receiver Terrell Owens on six passes. Owens caught one. Polamalu caught two.
“They saw me line up in certain situations and certain formations and come across the middle,” Owens said. “Polamalu was coming downhill on those routes. I think they did a great job of gameplanning.”
Not that it’s any surprise the Steelers are measurably better when Polamalu plays. Over the last three seasons, they allow an average of about 60 yards and 9 points per game fewer when Polamalu plays as compared to when he doesn’t.
With Ravens safety Ed Reed slowed since missing the front half of the season with hip surgery, there is little argument that Polamalu is the league’s pre-eminent player at that position.
“He’s playing amazing, the stuff he does on Sundays is unbelievable,” Farrior said. “I’ve said it, I think he’s the best player I’ve ever played with.”