PITTSBURGH – Amid the vicious collisions and battered bodies left strewn around Heinz Field, the deciding play for the AFC title was about something far more subtle: The ability of Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu to read someone's eyes.
Polamalu's 40-yard interception return for a score in the fourth quarter propelled Pittsburgh to its seventh Super Bowl and a chance for a record sixth ring when it plays Arizona in Tampa, Fla., on Feb. 1. But while Pittsburgh's 23-14 victory over the Baltimore Ravens in their third matchup of the season was defined by one brutal hit after another (capped by one that sent Ravens running back Willis McGahee off the field on a stretcher with a concussion), Polamalu's game-deciding play was more about his vision than physicality.
"He's the best I've ever been around at being able to do that," said Pittsburgh defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who is 71 and has spent 50 years in the NFL. That includes 14 years as one of the best defensive backs in the game during his era. "Most of the time, I just try to stay out of his way."
On Sunday, Polamalu not only made the interception, but he made one critical play after another. That started with his help on a fourth-and-1 stop in the first half that stalled a Baltimore drive. It continued when he sniffed out a bootleg run by Baltimore quarterback Joe Flacco, turning what seemingly could have been at least a 6-yard gain into an 8-yard loss. Two plays later, Polamalu deflected a third-down pass to end Baltimore's possession. On the next series, he stopped Todd Heap for no gain on a third-down pass.
As impressive as all of those were – Pittsburgh linebacker James Farrior actually said he was more impressed with the stop on Flacco than the interception – the interception was the highlight.
"You turn a two-point game into a nine-point game, yeah, that's what I call a big play," LeBeau said.
What made that play was Polamalu's ability to read and anticipate. Flacco knew that could happen and did the best any rookie could to trick Polamalu. Truth is, about the only thing that could have helped Flacco on Sunday was a pair of shades courtesy Phil Helmuth.
"We had our play on that side and I think that Troy was able to read my eyes," Flacco said. "Both of our receivers were on that side of the field and Polamalu does a great job of doing that.
"You have to influence him as much as you can away from where you want to throw the ball. I think he was able to beat me there, he read me a little bit."
Flacco ended his impressive rookie season with another down performance against the Steelers. Flacco finished with three interceptions. For all the good things he did this season in improving Baltimore's long-drab quarterback play, Flacco was the weak link against Pittsburgh.
In three games against the Steelers, Flacco had six turnovers, including five interceptions. Trailing 16-14 with 6:50 remaining Sunday, Baltimore looked like it might overcome those mistakes by Flacco as the Ravens started to drive from their own 14-yard line. But on third-and-13 (one of nine times the Ravens faced third-and-7 or more), Polamalu gambled in coverage, watching Flacco carefully as outside linebacker James Harrison started to bear down on him.
Finally, with Harrison about to hit, Flacco released and Polamalu snared the pass, going from the left side all the way back to the right before getting into the end zone.
For his part, Polamalu discounted his role, saying what he did was merely part of what the Pittsburgh defense allows him to do.
"When you have a great pass rush, then the defense allows you to freelance in a way," Polamalu said. "A lot of times it doesn't work. I can tell you a lot of times during the season where I messed up plays."
That's a wonderful bit of self-deprecation, but a long way from reality. In many ways, Polamalu is the rare safety who forces opposing quarterbacks to change what they want to do so much that he creates pass rush opportunities up front. That has been the key to the Steelers being able to force so many turnovers this season.
"Like I said, you're trying to influence him as much as you can with your eyes, look him off, try to look away from where you're going, but he has such amazing ability to recover that if you show anything, he's going to jump the route right away," said Flacco, who only completed 13 of 30 passes for 141 yards. "There are things you can do to him, but it's not like he gives you a lot of chances and eventually the pass rush is going to be there."
The risk that comes with reading a quarterback's eyes is that great ones know how to deceive. They look away and fake and do all sorts of things to play with the mind of a safety. As Polamalu noted, he has had his down moments in the past, such as the 2004 AFC championship game against New England, when Patriots quarterback Tom Brady toyed with the Steelers secondary.
But with the Harrison and LaMarr Woodley applying pressure up front, Polamalu knows when to take a risk.
"The thing he's best at is knowing when people can't lie anymore," LeBeau said. "He anticipates and sees everything so well. He knows what I'm going to say before I say it."
In that way, Polamalu helps create a sense of trust. Catching Flacco for the 8-yard loss was a prime example. Harrison's job in the Steelers defense is to crash off the end on every play, leaving him exposed to that play.
"I can't even worry about that, I have to depend on Troy reading that because that's his spot," Harrison said. But it's one thing to say that and another to truly believe it. When Polamalu crashed that play so quickly, he gave confidence to the entire group. Stunningly, Polamalu recognized that despite the fact that he'd seen it on film only twice this year, when Flacco hit it for bit gains against Dallas and Tennessee.
And despite the fact that Flacco, who is surprisingly agile for being 6-foot-6, felt he executed the play perfectly.
"I read it and set it up just the way you're supposed to, but then [Polamalu] is on top of me right away. It was pretty surprising," Flacco said.
Not so much to the Steelers.
"When Troy reads something, he's the fastest player in the league from point A to point B," LeBeau said.
"I didn't necessarily know it was coming, but I read it," Polamalu said in his typically understated tone.
Said inside linebacker James Farrior: "To me, that stop was probably more impressive than the interception because Flacco kind of caught us at the right time. They fooled 10 of us, but you have to fool all 11."
And that's critical. Nothing hurts a defense more than a moment of doubt, that time when players worry whether teammates have their back. If that doubt leads to hesitation, the whole structure of the defense falls apart quickly.
That's when opponents can lie with their eyes. On Sunday, that didn't happen.
And now, the Steelers have their collective eyes on the biggest prize of the season.