Safeties first: Reed, Polamalu excel

OWINGS MILLS -- The heated rivalry between the Baltimore Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers doesn't extend to star safeties Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu. It's more of a mutual admiration society for two of the top defensive players in the league.

At the top of their respective games, both are expected to be pivotal figures in Sunday's AFC title game at Heinz Field.

"Troy is a great safety, a great player, a great competitor," said Reed, a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year. "You know that from watching him. Of course, I watch him on tape a lot and he's a playmaker.

"Just as much as you guys are aware of me, they've got to be aware of him, where he is on the field. Troy is another guy who's right there knocking on the door of the Hall of Fame."

Polamalu intercepted a career-high seven interceptions during the regular season, recording an interception in four consecutive games late in the second half of the season.

Selected to the Pro Bowl for the fifth year in a row, the former USC star finished tied for second in the NFL in interceptions behind Reed's nine picks. It was the most interceptions by a Steelers player since Willie Williams' seven in 1995. The Steelers are 13-3 when Polamalu intercepts a pass.

Meanwhile, the Ravens are 27-8 when Reed intercepts a pass and 8-0 when he intercepts two passes or more. He has intercepted 10 passes in the past eight games.

"I've told him many times, 'You're the greatest safety to play the game," Polamalu said of Reed. "I've told him that to his face. We all learn from each other, and I think we learn more from him.

"He makes big plays. Whenever you see him have a one interception game, it's disappointing. 'He only got one?' He must be injured.'"

Polamalu is listed as probable with a strained calf muscle that limited him to three tackles against the San Diego Chargers, but is expected to be at nearly full strength by kickoff.

Reed is probable with a knee injury and a nerve impingement inside his neck that has plagued him all season.

"There's going to be a lot of great players on the field in this game, obviously those are two of them," Baltimore offensive coordinator Cam Cameron said. "As coaches, we're all looking for those types of guys. One of the advantages we have for us offensively is going against our defense on a year-round basis. We haven't come up against any defenses yet that can create more problems than the one we see every day."

As much attention as Reed deservedly gets, his counterpart's contribution to the game is arguably just as valuable to his team.

Polamalu is a major force in run support with his bone-shaking tackles, recording 87 tackles this season to rank fourth on the team. He has 432 career tackles, 17 interceptions and seven sacks.

While Polamalu is nowhere close to Reed's equal in pass coverage or in returns with just one career touchdown, his range, intensity and tackling ability are top-notch.

"There's no particular player on defense that I particularly watch," Reed said. "If there was one guy, it would probably be Troy because we play the same position. It's just natural to watch your position.

"As a fan, you sit back and watch. When you're on the sideline, you watch because when you're not going over checks, you want to know what's going on with your offense. But you also see what they're doing on defense."

Aaron Wilson covers the Baltimore Ravens for the Carroll County Times and the Annapolis Capital.

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