|Keith Srakocic / Associated Press|
|Troy Polamalu has shown that he might be the single most valuable player to the Pittsburgh Steelers.|
Professional football's meanest, bloodiest rivalry served as a powerful backdrop for two stars to find their respective finishing kicks hitting the home stretch not only of this season, but also in the race for Defensive Player of the Year.
Ravens edge-rushing issue-creator Terrell Suggs played, for the balance of the night, like he was Lawrence Taylor. He had a sack-and-a-half, three tackles for losses, and hit quarterback Ben Roethlisberger five times, the kind of dominant performance that prompted John Harbaugh to call him "one of the premier players in the league."
When it counted, though, he was outdone, and really, there's not a whole lot of shame in that.
Because in a season in which Ed Reed has struggled to regain his otherworldly form coming off a serious hip injury, the gap between Troy Polamalu and the rest of the NFL's safeties might be wider than any such divide in the league. And he showed why on Sunday night when it mattered most.
With 3 minutes, 22 seconds left, the Ravens carried a 10-6 lead and faced a second-and-5 at their own 43, an obvious running situation. The Steelers ran a zero blitz (man coverage on the outside, no help, everyone else coming) designed to dump Ray Rice in the backfield. Polamalu came free off the offense's left side, slapped the ball loose from Joe Flacco, and the ball crashes to the turf, where LaMarr Woodley collects it to set up a Steelers offense that scored at the 9-yard line on an Isaac Redman catch-and-run for the winning touchdown.
"Troy's a great player," coach Mike Tomlin said. "A lot of guys would go in there and sack the quarterback. He sees the game a little differently, that's what makes him special. He got the ball out."
That's why, if you've got a say in who is recognized as the game's premier defender for 2010, your decision got a whole lot easier on Sunday night.
Suggs has a case, with his 9.5 sacks. The explosive Cameron Wake has come on strong of late as a darkhorse candidate, continuing to produce against elite tackles. And Clay Matthews is still in the running, even if the early hype and his numbers (11.5 sacks) have tailed off a bit.
But if you really consider valid the argument most folks make for populating their MVP ballots almost exclusively with quarterbacks -- because those guys impact the game more than anyone else -- than Polamalu almost has to be your man on the defensive side of the ball.
Start with what Tomlin said, that Polamalu "sees the game a little differently."
The fourth quarter strip sack was a prime example of that. Remember, Polamalu was coming with the Steelers' defenders loaded up not to rush the passer, but to blow up a running play. The safety came free and, in the split second between the time he came flying off the ball like he knew the snap count and the time the ball came loose, Polamalu mentally adjusted to the fact that he was now chasing a pass play, and not a run play, and had the presence of mind, when Flacco's arm went up, to go for the ball.
Most defensive players would likely have a moment of hesitation diagnosing the play, and shifting focus from crashing down the line on a back to cracking down on the quarterback. And even with those who would've gone straight for Flacco, many wouldn't have had the reflex and the ability to think quickly enough to go for the ball. Yet, Polamalu did all of that in that short amount of time, which explains how special he is, even if he can't explain quite how his instincts kicked in through that situation.
"I don't know," Polamalu said afterward. "Sometimes things just happen so fast."
That quality might be hard to quantify. But it's pretty easy for the Steelers to realize what they have, which is why they allow him to free-lance and put himself in position to make plays.
"He shows up," said Ryan Clark, his running mate at safety. "I think we try to put him in position to do that. But a lot of times, we break the huddle, and he says, 'What are you thinking?' And I'll say, 'I'll just do what you don't.' You want him to be comfortable. And he makes great plays all the time."
What happened this week was preceded by a shoe-string, game-saving interception in Buffalo, which occurred inside the Steelers 5 with 2:51 left in regulation and really preserved the team's chance to win the game in overtime. After that game, coming off the field, Polamalu gave me a similar explanation to the one above -- things happened fast as he covered the ground between the center field spot he was manning and the place where he picked it off, outside the numbers.
But the real truth is that, beyond just the big plays that pop and the free-wheeling style that makes Polamalu a television darling, the guts of the argument on Polamalu is that he's the biggest difference-maker on one of football's best teams on a down-to-down basis.
Polamalu missed 11 games last year and, in those games, the Steelers allowed an average of 320.2 yards (98.5 on the ground and 221.6 through the air), while yielding an average of 23.2 points. Conversely, in the 33 games he's played in since 2008, Pittsburgh has allowed 266.0 yards (72.3 rushing, 193.7 passing) and 14.6 points per game.
Were there more factors at work over that 44-game sample? Certainly. But the fact is, that's a 54.2-yard and 8.6-point per-game difference that can be correlated to Polamalu's presence.
Then there's this: The Steelers are 25-8 with Polamalu in that time, and 5-6 without him. And this is a club that went 3-1 without its two-time Super Bowl champion quarterback earlier this year, and went to the mat with those Ravens with then-rookie QB Dennis Dixon in the one game Ben Roethlisberger missed last year.
Asked to characterize the difference between Polamalu and his safety peers right now, taking into account that Ed Reed may not be quite Ed Reed right now, one AFC scout said, "Big gap. Put it this way: He and Reed are the only safeties in the league you have to account for on every play. And moreso, it's Polamalu now. He's all over."
I then asked if it's fair to say Polamalu is the NFL's best defender. "He's got my vote," the scout said. "Hands down."
And so, Polamalu, through 13 weeks of football, has my vote as well.
Follow Albert Breer on Twitter @albertbreer.