DALLAS - Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu and Green Bay's Charles Woodson see a different game and have the nerve to act on what they see.
Not only do their brains and boldness make them valuable players, but that combination also won the Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year award for Woodson in 2009 and for Polamalu in 2010.
Each has the cunning, the experience and athletic gifts to emerge as the most valuable player in Super Bowl XLV on Sunday. Conversely, each could be the goat.
“They take educated guesses, and they’re usually right,” Steelers offensive coordinator Bruce Arians said. “(Woodson) is like Troy. You’ve got to find him before the ball’s snapped. You’ve got to account for them.”
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Two years ago, when Todd Haley was the Arizona Cardinals’ offensive coordinator, he and quarterback Kurt Warner watched film together before Super Bowl XLIII and found themselves fixated on the man with the No. 43 jersey and the hair flowing from beneath his helmet.
“For two weeks we called Polamalu the wild card because he’s a very unpredictable player,” Haley said in 2009. “You just don’t know what he’s going to do. That’s what scared Kurt and me. There are times he comes out of the scheme and just uses his ability or instincts to make plays.”
How often is Polamalu right?
“Probably about 85 percent of the time,” said Steelers linebacker James Farrior. “You take all of the good with a few bad. You should know where he is at all times, but I don’t even know if he knows where he’s going to be.”
Joe Whitt, the Packers’ second-year cornerbacks coach, was unable to fathom Woodson’s wavelength until they had a few deep conversations.
“He taught me this. He said, ‘Joe, a lot of guys see it but they don’t believe it on game day,’ ” Whitt said. “It’s the same with Troy.
“When Troy sees something, when he sees a formation and a motion, he believes it and goes and gets it. A lot of guys won’t pull the trigger. That’s the difference.”
The tape-watching habits of Woodson and Polamalu are the stuff of legend. By kickoff, they are as prepared as a player could be.
Last year, Woodson intercepted nine passes, at least half by showing up in places or breaking on passes that left observers wondering what just happened.
Woodson often chalked it up to “instincts.”
As amorphous as that word might be, the dozen or so coaches and players interviewed for this story pointed to that very element almost universally.
“The game is real slow for them,” said Ben McAdoo, who coaches the Packers’ tight ends. “I don’t think the quarterback can be surprised by any atypical reaction that he gets. Expect the unexpected.”
Even after the ’09 season, in which Woodson made countless game-changing plays, he was crestfallen when the Packers blew a wild-card game in Arizona and failed again in his quest for the Super Bowl.
In the offseason, Woodson and his coach had another heart-to-heart in which Whitt asked him to trust what he had to say.
Green Bay had allowed a whopping 34 touchdown passes in 17 games, and the red-zone defense was terrible. Whitt asked Woodson to freelance less often than he had.
Woodson was asked to play closer to the line, which in turn enabled him to re-route his man and permit more definite reads behind him. Woodson’s interception total slipped to two, but Whitt says his unselfishness played a pivotal role in why the Packers trimmed their yield of touchdown passes to 18 in 19 games.
Earlier this week, Polamalu was telling one side of his story when he said to a group of reporters, “I don’t have any more freedom than anybody else has in the defense.”
Based on the explanation of Steelers defensive backs coach Ray Horton – a former star at the University of Washington and Mount Tahoma High – the strong safety has an assignment on every play. However, neither defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau nor Horton would ever clamp down and prevent Polamalu from taking instinct-driven chances.
“Dick gives him the freedom to line up anywhere he wants, just be where you’re supposed to be when the ball’s snapped,” one Steelers coach said. “He will be at the line of scrimmage, and right before the ball is snapped he will drop and play Cover 2.”
When Polamalu entered the league in 2003, he ran 40 yards in 4.49 seconds. The 207-pound Polamalu probably isn’t that fast now, but everyone has seen how rapidly he moves from point A to point B when the scent is strong.
“I’ve seen him leave the half-field safety spot and try to cut something in the middle of the field,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said. “He’s aggressive that way. I expect him to be their pressure player this week, too.”
When the teams met late last season, Polamalu was out with a knee injury; the Packers gained 436 yards and scored 36 points. Now they must deal with Polamalu.
“That defense with him in there is 1,000 times better,” said Jones. “A 1,000 times better.”
The same surely would ring true for the Green Bay defense with and without Woodson.
SUPER BOWL XLV
Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Green Bay Packers, 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Ch. 13