When I spoke with Pittsburgh Steelers mega-safety Troy Polamalu(notes) last July and asked him about his feelings for defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, it was very clear who the reigning Defensive Player of the Year credited for a great deal of his current success. As great as LeBeau has been through his estimable career as a defensive mastermind, and as much as he's benefitted from previous defensive backs as linchpins like David Fulcher, Carnell Lake, and Rod Woodson, Polamalu may be the best of that particular bunch. The proof is in the fact that Polamalu has a virtual "green light" to freelance, even in LeBeau's multiple defensive concepts that require such precision and discipline.
"It's a level of trust, communication and understanding, most importantly," Polamalu said. "That's the relationship that Coach LeBeau and I have."
Asked why he was able to unleash Polamalu on enemy offenses with such freedom, LeBeau spoke to the fact that his on-field superstar is the rare player who can really do it all, and do it all at a ridiculously high level.
"Troy probably has the most versatility of any of the backs I've coached - he can literally do anything," LeBeau said. "You ask him to blitz, he's going to be a great blitzer. If you ask him to cover [the opposing team's] best wide receiver, he's going to do a good job there. If you ask him to play in a linebacker area and chase down the runner, he'll do that well. And he can coordinate the coverage - he has a great knowledge of the defense. So, I couldn't really find a weakness in Troy, and that's a true blessing from a defensive coordinator's standpoint. He opens the playbook to pretty much anything you want to do - it's just a matter of how far off the diving board you want to go."
LeBeau has never had a problem going off the diving board, even in the biggest situations; that's how James Harrison(notes) knew to drop back in coverage and pick off a Kurt Warner(notes) pass that he returned for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII. But the crazy schemes LeBeau dials up don't work nearly as well without #43 in there. Polamalu had seven interceptions in the 2010 regular season - in just 14 games! - and each of them had a different coverage look.
Polamalu may start at the line and drive back as part of a zone blitz, or start at center field and charge forward at the snap, but it's the little things he does to alter initial coverage looks that make him truly great. No player in the league is better at convincing a quarterback he's seeing one type of coverage when he's actually about to see another.
Polamalu's first interception of 2010, in the season opener against Matt Ryan(notes) and the Atlanta Falcons, was a great example. With 1:43 left in the game and the score tied, 9-9, the Steelers set up against an Atlanta three-wide set no first-and-10 from the Falcons' 21 with what looked like a standard Cover-2 scheme. Of course, since Polamalu's involved, "looked like" was the operative term.
At the snap, Polamalu came straight to the defensive left sideline as Roddy White(notes) set up to catch a quick sideline pass. As he vacated his half of deep coverage to jump the underneath route, left cornerback Bryant McFadden(notes) actually took Polamalu's deep half responsibility as free safety Ryan Clark(notes) (25) switched over to a more "center field" look. This allowed Clark to accentuate deep coverage and also to take the deep post away from the slot receiver.
So, with all that deep coverage action going on, how is it that Matt Ryan couldn't hit his tight end on a crossing route over the middle, or his halfback on a quick up? Because the Steelers were running an interesting nickel defense, with cornerback William Gay(notes) (22) dropping back from linebacker depth, and both actual linebackers on the play dropping back as well. Ryan had no options over the middle, tried to hit White on what he thought would be the comfortable route to the sideline, and got completely bamboozled by Polamalu's ability to skip out of traditional coverage and jump a route to perfection.
After the play, the camera shot to Ryan, who had a "Where in hell did THAT guy come from?" look on his face. If Aaron Rodgers(notes) has that same look on Sunday afternoon, Polamalu - by way of LeBeau's genius - may have been the key to a Steelers Super Bowl win.
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