Matt Hasselbeck was not the Tennessee Titans quarterback last season when Troy Polamalu made a one-of-a-kind play.
At a critical moment, the Pittsburgh Steelers safety leaped over the offensive line just as the ball was snapped and tackled then-quarterback Kerry Collins before he ever got out from under center.
Hasselbeck did not have to be there to know what happened. That’s because with Polamalu, the NFL’s 2010 defensive player of the year, such things have taken place more than once.
“He times up the snap count, jumps over the pile, makes those critical fourth-and-1 and third-and-1 plays and just has some amazing effort on the field,” Hasselbeck said. “And his instincts are great.”
Against the Titans, Polamalu did it on first-and-goal from the 1 with just over a minute to play in a game that was still in doubt. Tennessee eventually scored but had to burn its final two timeouts before it did — the first after Polamalu’s leap — and ultimately ran out of time following a successful onside kick in a 19-11 defeat at LP Field.
Regardless of the fact that there is a new quarterback and a new scheme, the challenges posed by Polamalu remain significant.
“I told the quarterbacks they’d better know where he is on every play,” offensive coordinator Chris Palmer said. “He is a guy … like all great players, they take some liberties, and normally when those great players take a liberty it pays off for them. He has a tremendous knack for being in the right place at the right time. He has outstanding football sense and he makes plays. He’s their playmaker.”
Pittsburgh’s defense has been uncommonly porous through the first four weeks of the season. Opponents have averaged 119.3 yards rushing. Twenty-one teams have done better in that regard.
On top of that, the Steelers are the only team in the league that has not yet recorded an interception. And the team has just one takeaway.
That being said, Polamalu recorded the lone fumble recovery and he turned it into six points when he returned it 16 yards for a touchdown against Indianapolis in Week 3. With a team-high 10 tackles last Sunday against Houston, he climbed to the top of his unit with 29 for the season.
“He is just unpredictable, he has the authority to kind of do his own thing at times because he is such a smart player,” coach Mike Munchak said. “He could be at the line of scrimmage three or four yards off the ball or he could be the deep safety in coverage. He does a great job of trying to fool the quarterback at what he is doing.
Practices this week for the offense included a player on the scout team defense wearing Polamalu’s No. 43 to help the quarterback identify him pre-snap.
“That’s the guy you really want to key on,” Hasselbeck said. “He’s the most explosive playmaker on their defense — probably the most explosive playmaker in the league on defense. He’s just a real instinctive player — a really good guy off the field but just a tough, hard-nosed football player on the field.”
The Titans’ practice Polamalu has been Robert Johnson, a fifth-round pick in 2010 who currently is on the practice squad.
Johnson was a junior college track star who successfully cleared 6-8 in the high jump. At no time this week, though, has he gone over the offensive line.
“Obviously, every week that he plays the game, the opposing offense, I’m sure, has a jersey with the No. 43 on it that somebody has to wear on the scout team,” Hasselbeck said. “It’s a big job for that player who gets to play him and it’s a big job for the offense that has to go against him on Sunday.”