OWINGS MILLS, Md. – Baiting quarterbacks, bashing wide receivers and breaking records, Ed Reed(notes) and Troy Polamalu(notes) are regarded as a breed apart as the top safeties in the game.
They patrol the secondary with natural instincts, flowing smoothly around the field with an innate reaction that traditionally lands them in the path of the football.
It’s a position that demands intelligence and toughness.
In the case of Reed and Polamalu, both aren’t afraid to gamble and neither has ever been accused of being conventional.
“Very instinctive,” Baltimore Ravens veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason(notes) said. “Both of them study a lot of football. Obviously, football is all about feel and they feel the game. That’s why Ed is in places like, ‘Man, how did he get there?’”
With an unorthodox bent and a grit that sets them apart, Reed and Polamalu are central figures in Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For the Ravens, Reed led the NFL with eight interceptions despite missing the first six games of the regular season on the physically unable to perform list due to offseason hip surgery.
No one has as many interceptions as Reed with 54 since the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year entered the league eight years ago, and no one has gained as many as his 1,438 interception return yards.
And Polamalu led the Steelers with seven interceptions to rank second in the AFC, also registering 82 tackles.
The common bond between the long-haired Polamalu, a former USC star, and Reed, a Louisiana native, is the big plays they routinely make.
“I think just in their ability to read what’s happening to them so quickly,” tight end Todd Heap(notes) said. “When you see Polamalu out there, he’ll come out of coverage sometimes just to make a play, something that he feels, something that he sees. You think sometimes all of that is undisciplined, but most of the time he’s right.”
Polamalu also essentially won a 13-10 game in Baltimore for the Steelers last month with his sack and forced fumble when he blindsided Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco(notes) to set up Ben Roethlisberger’s(notes) game-winning touchdown.
Polamalu is a six-time Pro Bowl selection who has intercepted 26 career passes with 514 tackles and eight sacks.
When there’s a play needed to be made, invariably Reed and Polamalu are in the thick of the action.
“One thing I think about these two safeties is they have unbelievable hands,” Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. “These are two guys that just have a great ability to catch the football, and that gives them a chance to make plays on the ball downfield.
“They make great catches, so they get turnovers. They’re both hitters, they both are very instinctive, they both know the game inside and out, all those things that everybody talks about. “
Ravens safety Tom Zbikowski(notes) grew up watching Reed and Polamalu, attempting to mirror their games as he developed into a prep standout in the Chicago area and into a third-round draft pick at Notre Dame.
Zbikowski said it’s no accident that they make so many plays.
“It’s the studying of film and a lot of it has to do with instincts,” Zbikowski said. “They understand situations, they understand when a defense need a play for momentum. They’re never standing around. They know how to disguise what they’re doing.
“They’re complete football players . You don’t make big plays over and over again and it’s just luck. You’re in the right place at the right time because they’ve done it plenty of times. They’re safeties that are made to play the position that they play.
Reed is playing this week after spending time with his grieving family after his younger brother dove into the Mississippi River to elude police. The search has been called off.
He declined an interview request in the locker room this week.
“He’s a man of character,” outside linebacker Terrell Suggs(notes) said. “None of us have lost a relative that can understand what he’s going through, but all we got to do is try to be there for him, and keep his spirits up. He is hands down my defensive MVP.
“What did he play in, 10 games? And he led the NFL in interceptions? That’s unheard of. That’s bananas. He’s a great guy. He’s a great teammate.”
With Reed’s range and impactful style, he has built a reputation as one of the most dynamic defensive players in the NFL.
He has scored 13 career touchdowns, including the playoffs, and is the only player in league history to return touchdowns off a punt return, blocked punt, interception and a fumble recovery.
"Ed brings an element that very few players bring to the table," Harbaugh said. "He has really, really special hands and body control so he can make plays that most guys can't make. He covers more ground, too, but really, more than anything, he really understands the game, understands the defenses and understands the scheme he is up against."
Polamalu is 8-2 in the playoffs.
And he has 51 career tackles in the postseason with three interceptions, returning one Flacco pass 40 yards for a touchdown in the AFC championship game two years ago.
The stockier Polamalu plays strong safety and operates as more of an enforcer near the line of scrimmage.
And Reed, who has a slimmer build at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, tends to play more of a pure centerfielder role.
He’s not as inclined to attack or blitz anymore because of a nagging nerve impingement in his neck that has plagued him for the last few years.
“I don’t know if there’s that much of a difference,” Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis(notes) said. “They both prepare incredibly and they just love the game. And those are the two few safeties that actually turn the game into an offensive possession when they do have the ball in their hands.
“I think that’s what makes both of those guys who they are, Ed and Troy. It’s an honor watching both of them play. It’s a real honor to sit back and watch, probably, two of the best safeties to ever play this game go at it.”
It was Steelers wide receiver Hines who recently introduced a segment on Reed as one of the top 100 players.
It’s the kind of mutual respect that comes from the kind of performances that Reed has put on since arriving in the NFL as a first-round draft pick from the University of Miami
The seven-time Pro Bowl selection has 551 career tackles, five sacks, 11 forced fumbles and seven fumble recoveries.
In eight playoff games, Reed has recorded 22 tackles, seven interceptionms and 11 pass deflections.
“We've had our battles over the years,” Ward told Pittsburgh reporters. “He's hit me and I've hit him a couple times. It's always been very physical between both of us. At the end of the day, and I'm a little biased towards Troy, but he is by far, No. 1 or No. 2, the best safety in the league.
"He's a game-changer, same thing with Troy," Ward said of Reed. "When you're playing good and you're a great player, great things just happen when you're around. Those guys just have a key knack for making plays when they need it the most, and he's right up there with Troy.”
Polamalu has never intercepted a pass in the regular season against Baltimore, but made them pay in the playoffs two years ago.
Reed has just one interception in eight games against Roethlisberger and that was during a 31-7 Baltimore victory on Dec. 24, 2006.
It’s probably not a coincidence since both opposing offenses are wise enough to avoid these two defensive blue-chippers.
Since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970, only Ronnie Lott and Paul Krause have more games with at least two interceptions than Reed.
“Those are two of the best safeties in the game right now, let alone probably to ever play the game,” Heap said. “They’re similar in some respects, and then they’re different in some respects.”Click here to order Ed Reed’s proCane Rookie Card.