Pittsburgh Steelers fans are pretty excited about the latest incarnation of their team’s defense. It helps to have four Pro Bowl players, all of whom are definitely returning next season and likely for years to come, with the possible emergence of another Pro Bowler or two shortly down the line.
As exciting as that is to see, and as much of a breath of fresh air Minkah Fitzpatrick has been at the safety position, I’m sure everybody can admit that it pales in comparison to the privilege of having watched Troy Polamalu work for over a decade in the Steelers’ defense during the 2000s in particular.
The USC safety’s free-range abilities served as the foundation to so many things Pittsburgh was able to do on defense during that time, but developing those qualities took time—and a group effort, as he recently told Dale Lolley for the team’s website.
“I remember during my second year, I started sprinting around, doing some things to disguise,” Polamalu said. “(Linebackers) James Farrior and Joey Porter were like, ‘Wow, I like that.’ Then, (wide receiver) Hines (Ward) was like, ‘Do that, but do it like this.’ We had (running back) Jerome (Bettis) and he said, ‘That was really tough, but it would be tougher if you did it in this gap.’ They just kind of shaped that whole disguise thing.”
Prior to that, Polamalu was talking about how the Steelers threw so many different roles at him during his rookie season, working at all levels of the defense and getting these different on-field perspectives, at that experience no doubt fueled both his ingenuity and his comfort level in moving all over the formation.
Naturally, when you have a player who is both capable of moving around and has the skill to pull it off, that’s something that you take advantage of, and Dick LeBeau was sure to notice, a perfect complement to his zone blitz concepts, for one thing.
But as he told it, it wasn’t even just the defense. Key offensive players like Hines Ward and Jerome Bettis chipped in, providing their perspective. After all, if they were getting confused by what Polamalu was showing them, or could direct them to what would surprise them, it would be surprising to the Steelers’ opponents as well.
Needless to say, he developed this asset into a game-changing ability, both literally and metaphorically. He was able to help the Steelers win a number of games simply because he had that uncanny ability to show up where nobody expected. At the same time, it helped to redefine the safety position and the way it’s played at its best from that point on.