Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who was named the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year this week, remains unfazed by all the attention he's getting. (Mark Humphrey/AP)
While the Packers thought they had the league's Defensive Player of the Year in their own locker room, the winner actually plays for their opponent in Super Bowl XLV.
Steelers safety Troy Polamalu edged out Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews for the coveted award by a mere two votes, even though he missed two games this season and stepped off the plane in Dallas nursing a nagging Achilles injury. After sitting out of a few practices last week in Pittsburgh, this week he's expected to participate in all drills.
And, make no mistake about it, the 5-10, 207-pound battering ram will be in the starting lineup Sunday at Cowboys Stadium, looking to bring a record seventh Vince Lombardi Trophy back to the Steel City.
Originally a first-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft out of USC, Polamalu is a six-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro, so his DPOY recognition simply solidifies his reputation as one of the game's brightest stars. A playmaker in every sense of the term, the former Trojan has 27 interceptions, eight sacks, eight forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and three defensive touchdowns in eight seasons, including a 45-yard INT return to paydirt in Week 14 against the AFC North-rival Bengals. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, unquestionably one of the most innovative defensive minds to put on a headset, called No. 43 in black and gold "probably the most instinctive player I've ever had."
Never one to get caught up in personal achievements, and perhaps the last member of Pittsburgh's roster interested in drawing extra attention to himself, Polamalu was stoic when told he had to clear some space on his mantle.
"I felt nothing," he said.
Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers has been the toast of the town upon his arrival in North Texas, with fellow players, opposing coaches and talking heads from coast to coast anointing him the Next Great Quarterback. Should he be able to defeat the Steelers and get fitted for his first ring, it will be difficult to put him anywhere lower than third on the current list of premier passers in the NFL -- behind the two poster boys, Tom Brady of the Patriots and Peyton Manning of the Colts, per league rules.
As smart with his decisions as he is accurate with his throws, Rodgers understands all too well the primary objective when facing Pittsburgh's No. 1-ranked scoring defense: keep one eye on Polamalu at all times.
"You just have to know where he's at," Rodgers said Wednesday. "He's a great blitzer, he's a good cover guy, he's got good ball skills, so it's going to be important to figure out where he's at. But we're going to make sure that if he's coming under pressure, we've at least got somebody getting his initial draft."
Rodgers is extra dangerous through the air because he has arguably the best receiving corps in the league at his disposal, with Greg Jennings, Donald Driver, Jordy Nelson and James Jones all capable of delivering a big play on any given snap.
According to Jones, he has to face another do-it-all defender in practice every day: 2009 Defensive Player of the Year Charles Woodson.
"They are very similar," said Jones. "If Charles was a safety, he would play like Troy. If Troy was a corner, he would play like Charles. They are both very smart and great athletes. They are around the football at all times. They understand schemes and what offenses are trying to do to them. We are going to need to know where Troy is at all times. If you are throwing the ball at Troy, we definitely need to be on the same page. Our routes have to be crisp, and we need to understand when to break off a route. That starts [Wednesday] in practice."
The Packers have made an effort to be balanced in the playoffs, much more so than they did during the regular season, as rookie sixth rounder James Starks has come out of nowhere to inject some life on the ground -- two-time 1,200-yard rusher Ryan Grant was shelved on injured reserve following Week 1. But with the Steelers featuring the top rush defense in the league, giving up a microscopic 62.8 yards per game during the year and even less (52.5) in the postseason, Green Bay's offense will likely rely on the right arm of Rodgers more than ever.
That means additional chances for Polamalu to single-handedly turn the tide on Super Sunday, be it with a blitz off the edge, a bone-crushing hit over the middle or a pick-six to the house.
Remove Polamalu from the equation, and the Steelers are still loaded with talent on the defensive side of the ball. Nose tackle Casey Hampton and linebackers James Farrior and James Harrison have all been to at least two Pro Bowls, while ends Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel and linebacker LaMarr Woodley have gone once. But Polamalu is the Reggie Jackson, the straw that stirs the drink, as evidenced by him sitting out 11 games with injury in 2009 and Pittsburgh failing to make the postseason.
So if Jackson was Mr. October, then maybe Polamalu can be Mr. February -- but don't expect him to be impressed with yet another accolade.
"I just try to be the same person."
|John Crist is an NFL Analyst for Scout.com, a voter for the Heisman Trophy and a member of the Professional Football Writers of America.|