PITTSBURGH – The last time Steelers safety Troy Polamalu was on the field, he left amid a dizzying moment of loss, frenetic energy and striking religious symbolism. For a man who is extraordinarily religious himself, watching Tim Tebow beat the Steelers was an interesting, if somewhat painful, experience.
Ultimately, Polamalu is sincerely curious about Tebow as a person … and fascinated by the quarterback's ability.
Tebow, traded to the New York Jets in the offseason after leading the Denver Broncos to the playoffs and a stunning overtime win over Polamalu's Steelers, has a captivated audience watching to see how his career turns out. Polamalu is clearly among those observers.
"There were so many things about him that were like playing a veteran and so many things like playing a rookie," Polamalu said, succinctly and perfectly summarizing the dichotomy that is Tebow, the player.
Pittsburgh's defensive goal in any game is to attack the quarterback, using its frenetic 3-4 scheme to strike fear and confusion with a variety of blitzes. Consequently, what the Steelers did was create opportunity for Tebow. That opportunity was magnified because starting safety Ryan Clark wasn't there to protect the deep part of the field (backup Ryan Mundy made numerous coverage mistakes).
"When things break down, [Tebow] is a little like [Steelers quarterback] Ben [Roethlisberger]," Polamalu said, paying Tebow a huge compliment. Roethlisberger is the NFL's best improvisational quarterback. His combination of size, strength and ability to throw deep make Roethlisberger one of the most dangerous passers in the league when the X's and O's get scattered and it becomes a schoolyard game.
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On the flipside of that high praise, Polamalu remains stunned at the simplicity of the offense Denver ran with Tebow and came away with one strong conclusion:
"You can't run that offense unless you have a great defense to go with it," said Polamalu, who remembers going through the playoff game thinking time after time …
"There's no way they're going to run that same route again," he said. "As a safety, part of your job is to eliminate certain routes that you don't think they're going to run. I would line up and say, 'They ran that the last time, there's no way they're going to run it again.' Then they did. The next time, 'There's no way they're going to run that again,' then they did.
"It was an incredibly simple offense that you just don't think can work in this league, but it worked for them with the kind of talent they had."
Polamalu alternates between admiring Tebow and understanding that there are great flaws in Tebow's game. A weakness for Tebow is quick, rhythm throws into tight spots. That's a problem because the NFL puts such a strong emphasis on that type of offense.
Polamalu and the rest of the football-loving world watched Denver's next playoff game as an extremely limited and vanilla New England Patriots defense made Tebow look like a high schooler about 500 feet in over his head.
"The Patriots sat back and did nothing on defense in that game," Polamula said. That's not a slap at the Patriots. It's an observation on strategy.
The Patriots played an extremely simple, disciplined game plan featuring a base, two-deep defense with soft coverage by the secondary. Up front, the Patriots almost never blitzed and didn't bring an extra pass rusher unless Tebow broke the pocket. On option running plays where Tebow served as a de facto running back, the Patriots played the most simplistic, fundamental football you could imagine.
It was the kind of defense that a competent, efficient passer should have lit up for big numbers. While the Broncos may not have beaten New England and its high-powered offense that day, the fact that Tebow was reduced to nothing was telling.
Against Pittsburgh, Tebow finished 10 of 21 for 316 yards with two touchdown passes. He also rushed 10 times for 50 yards and another score and was not sacked.
When that game ended on Tebow's 80-yard touchdown pass to DeMaryius Thomas, it was biblical stuff by sports standards. There's no way that Denver was supposed to beat Pittsburgh. Compared to the Broncos, David was almost a favorite in the battle with Goliath.
Against New England, Tebow was 9 of 26 for 136 yards, zero touchdowns, five carries for 13 yards and one lost fumble.
Anyone who thinks the Patriots' defense is that much better than the Steelers needs a brain scan.
But that's the rub. Against the Steelers' defense, which put a premium on pressuring the quarterback, Tebow was at his best.
Against a defense that should have allowed a quarterback to put up great numbers, however, Tebow was awful. In other words, Tebow is and was an enigma, comparable to a great player at certain moments.
And to a rookie at others.
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