Safety first ... and fourth

<b>PITTSBURGH - </b> They were supposed to be the Steelers' weak link because, after all, Chris Hope and Troy Polamalu had a combined total of zero starts coming into the season.<br><br> The safety position isn't for the young and the swift, but for the experienced and the wise. Yet, after three games, the Steelers' new safeties are heading up the league's fifth-ranked pass defense and running first and fourth on the team in tackles.

Last Sunday, Hope KO'd Miami's starting running back, Lamar Gordon, while Polamalu, the team's tackles leader, intercepted his first pass.

What's going on?

"It's all up here," said Polamalu as he pointed to his head.

Said Hope: "We wanted to start fast and finish strong. Hopefully we can continue to get better."

Well, the two didn't exactly start fast. Polamalu was burned badly for a touchdown in the opener. Hope, who'd been sidelined for much of training camp with a shoulder injury after tackling Jerome Bettis, wasn't nearly as reckless with his body when the regular season started. That changed Sunday when he laid out Gordon, who was put on injured reserve with a separated shoulder and is out for the season.

"I heard that bad news. I apologize to Lamar for that," Hope said. "I guess Jerome's a little bigger than he was."

As for Polamalu, he hasn't bitten on any pump fakes since the opener, and his interception early in Sunday's game set the tone for the defense.

"I think collectively, that was the best game this defense played," Polamalu said, admitting the Cincinnati Bengals will be a more difficult test this week than the Dolphins were.

"This is the best offense we've faced," he said.

Polamalu should know. His old friend is running the Bengals' show.

"Carson's a nice guy," Polamalu said of quarterback Carson Palmer. "We were roommates in college so we got to know each other intimately.

"He's a great person, great guy, and I had a lot of practice playing against him. Unfortunately, he got the best of me more often than I got the best of him."

Polamalu was asked -- considering his familiarity with Palmer at USC - what he could offer his current teammates in terms of insight.

"Nothing," said Polamalu, and he did not point to his head.

"I think he's learning the system as I'm learning the system. We're both first-year starters. At USC he had a great arm. He's the prototype quarterback. He's a complete quarterback. I've seen him pick a lot of defenses apart."

Palmer had struggled throughout most of his college career, but blossomed as a senior. He became the No. 1 pick of the draft the same year Polamalu was picked 16th.

"I think that's the greatest thing about his character," Polamalu said. "He had tons of scrutiny in L.A., through the media, throughout his career, and he persevered. And by his senior year he won the Heisman Trophy.

"He's just a great individual, he's warm-hearted and he's contagious with that."

Did he and Polamalu explore the Zen aspects of football together?

"We talked about stuff football players normally talk about -- flowers and mountains and trees," Polamalu said with a laugh, showing he has learned to joke a bit.

That maturity is also showing on the field. Along with his interception, Polamalu has 18 solo tackles and 27 total tackles to lead the team in both categories. He places the credit elsewhere, of course, this time to the defensive line. But he is part of a safety tandem that's more physical than any the Steelers have had since Carnell Lake left town.

"That's one of things we thrive on," said Hope. "That's the way it was before we came here and that's the way we want to carry it on."

NOTES - Kendrell Bell (groin) and Mike Logan (hamstring) joined Tommy Maddox on the sidelines during Wednesday's practice. Both players are listed as questionable for Sunday's game. Maddox, of course, is out. Starters who are out for the Bengals are center Rich Braham, safety Kim Herring and middle linebacker Nate Webster. Strong safety Rogers Beckett (concussion), left tackle Levi Jones and wide receiver Peter Warrick (shin) are questionable.

Steel City Insider Top Stories