Polamalo Pittsburgh's key to Super Bowl XLIII
12:57 AM EST, January 27, 2009
Sure, Ben Roethlisberger will be a major factor in Super Bowl XLIII. Willie Parker, too. And James Harrison, James Farrior and Hines Ward, even with a sprained knee.
But if there's one Steelers player who might have the biggest impact of all, it's the hard-hitting safety who flies around the field with that big mane of black hair flapping from beneath his helmet.
If the Steelers beat the Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium, I say Troy Polamalu will be the reason why.
But Polamalu disagrees.
We chatted about it Monday outside the Steelers' team hotel, and he didn't buy my theory that he's the one who holds the key. That his ball-hawking skills will be vital in deciding whether the Steelers shut down the Cardinals' high-powered offense. Or whether Kurt Warner lights up his fourth consecutive postseason opponent in one of the most remarkable Super Bowl runs in NFL history.
Specifically, the soft-spoken safety suggested that he will be no more important to the Steelers' defense against Warner than anyone else. "I don't look at it like I will have the biggest say over how we do," Polamalu said. "I think each and every player on our defense has their specific role, and we're all just as important as the other. So I don't look at it like it's just me. It's everybody."
Fine. What do you expect him to say, anyway? No one in his right mind is about to call himself the single biggest reason for anything that happens in a game that involves 22 players on every play.
There is plenty of truth to the idea that football really is a team sport. But if it's also a generally accepted theory that big players play big in big games, then Polamalu is at or near the top of the list as far as the Steelers are concerned. He's at the top of my list, that's for sure.
After all, if you're going to beat the Cardinals, you're going to have to somehow shut down the passing game. Or at least mute it to the point where you're making Warner settle for field goals. So far in these playoffs, neither the Falcons, Panthers nor Eagles have had an answer for Warner, who is playing as well now at age 37 as he was during his brilliant run as a Super Bowl MVP after the 1999 regular season.
Warner has eight touchdown passes and only two interceptions for a 112.1 rating during this postseason. During the regular season, he threw for 4,583 yards, 30 touchdowns and 14 interceptions for a 96.9 rating, the fourth-best single-season rating of his career.
Warner has the benefit of working with what I consider the best group of receivers in the NFL: Larry Fitzgerald, who might be the most dominant receiver in the game; Anquan Boldin, another prototype receiver, and Steve Breaston, an emerging young receiver who adds a legitimate threat at the No. 3 spot.
To contain that group, Polamalu has to become a disruptive force. If he doesn't intercept passes, then he has to limit the Cardinals' yards after catches with his strong tackling technique. It is no easy task.
"They seem to make their plays with guys hanging off Larry Fitzgerald, and he just outjumps them," Polamalu said. "When you have a quarterback like Kurt Warner throwing it on the money, that helps, too."
Polamalu was a game-changing player in the AFC Championship Game win over the Ravens, picking off Joe Flacco's late fourth-quarter pass at the Ravens' 40 and returning it for a touchdown in Pittsburgh's 23-14 win.
But here's the difference: Flacco was a rookie playing in his first AFC Championship Game. Warner is a seasoned veteran playing in his third Super Bowl.
"It's going to be a challenge, no question," Polamalu said.
He's got that right. Not only is he going against a Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback, but Polamalu and the Steelers will see arguably the best receiver of his generation in Fitzgerald. He's coming off a terrific year with 96 catches for 1,431 yards and 12 TDs, and he's in the midst of the most dominant postseason performance in NFL history. He already has broken Jerry Rice's single-season playoff record with 419 receiving yards, and there's still one game to go.
"Has he been stopped? No," Polamalu said. "Can he? We'll find out."
No pressure, Troy. But it's up to you.
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