One year into Troy Polamalu’s career some wondered if he was a bust. If he was too aggressive, took too many risks, and wouldn’t be dependable enough in the NFL. The play that began to turn that question around was his pick-six of Carson Palmer in Week Four of the 2004 season, Polamalu’s second year in the league. An iconic play that became core to his highlight reel, running over Palmer – his former USC teammate and roommate – and into the end zone.
Now, Palmer is telling his side of the story. He joined Pardon My Take in April to discuss that moment.
“We’re starting a drive and I throw a ball and it gets tipped at the line of scrimmage,” Palmer told the show. “Sure enough, Troy picks me off for the first time in our NFL careers. I start backpedaling and I’m looking for him and I can’t find him because he’s not a 6’5 safety, he’s a 5’8 safety.
“And I don’t see him and all of a sudden, I’m backing up, I’m damn near on the goal line, my own goal line, and I see through all of a sudden these jerseys spread out. And here comes Troy and he’s coming right at me. He lowers his head and puts it right on my AC Joint and ran me over for a touchdown. My shoulder has never been the same and that was my first year playing.”
A 26-yard pick six to seal a win over the Bengals. Here’s a look at the play because of course you gotta see it again.
I know the clip is a couple of weeks dated but it aired during the draft and got lost amid our wall-to-wall coverage. And it was too good not to share now.
Palmer explained the Steelers wouldn’t use Polamalu as a deep-half safety in these two-minute drills, choosing to play him underneath to take away crossers and make tackles to keep the clock running. Here, Polamalu threatened to blitz pre-snap, dropped into underneath zone, and intercepted Palmer after he tried to throw a 10-yard curl.
From there, he zig-zagged his way through the Bengals’ offense before putting his foot in the ground and trucking Palmer into the end zone. At the time, it was just the second interception of his career and his first touchdown, an “I’m here” moment en route to the first of his eight Pro Bowl seasons.
While Palmer’s shoulder was forever injured, he went on to be the Bengals’ starting quarterback for seven seasons, though the team struggled to win and Palmer had a losing record in Cincinnati, 46-51. Injuries, though, did partially derail his career, including tearing his ACL the following year in a Wild Card loss to Pittsburgh.
Palmer said it was hard to even be mad at Polamalu, who never brought the moment up to him.
“He was too nice. You’re like, ‘Damn it, Troy.’ He comes up to you like, ‘Hey, how’s the family?'”
Moments like that made Polamalu the player he was. The unpredictability of where he’d end up post-snap. His ballhawking ability. The zaniness of his returns and the excitement it brought. And then being the nicest guy in the world the moment the play ended and the job was done. It’s a great interview with Palmer, who can at least take the moment in stride 20 years later. Catch the whole interview with him and PMT below.