Written by Jason Robinson
There has been a lot of debate lately about who's better: Troy Polamalu or Ed Reed. Both are great at their respective postions to be sure. But who is better? Is there a definitive answer? I know what I think. In fact, there's no contest.
Troy Polamalu is a tremendous talent, to be sure, but Ryan Clark does a bulk of the coverage in Pittsburgh. Polamalu is more like another linebacker in running situations, an extra blitzer in 3rd down pass situations, and a sure tackler in general. But Reed eclipses him in interceptions, in turnovers caused, and in touchdowns. By a large margin I might add. Reed changes the entire nature of the game and the way offenses approach playing the Ravens. Want proof? Reed is the guy who out-smarts and befuddles Peyton Manning. Peyton Manning! One of the smartest QBs ever has a difficult time with Reed-a point which he's admitted. The Ravens, who always hover around the top 5 in defense each year, are only 6-9 without him in the starting lineup. Plus, this is a guy who can take it to the house at any moment and can lay lumber when necessary as well. Just ask Kansas City. His leveling blow in the playoffs last year took any remaining life out of the Chiefs and sent the Ravens rolling into the next round.
Honestly, there is no contest. Reed leads in INTs with 54 (twice as many), in defensive touchdowns with 8 (twice as many), in forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. What more needs to be said? It's Ed Reed, hands down.
But then again...
Ed Reed is great at what he does, maybe the best ball hawk since the likes of Jack Christiansen and Jack Butler. Once the ball is in the air he's public enemy number one. But Troy Polamalu is more than the sum of his plays, er, parts.
What has made Polamalu so special is not any one play, but a confluence (no pun intended) of things. Pittsburgh's defense has allowed the fewest points in the NFL three times since Polamalu became a starter in 2004. In 2007, the Steelers finished second; in 2005, third. So in other words, since Polamalu's arrival seven seasons ago the Steelers have finished in the top three in points allowed five times. In fact, Polamalu's worth is proven even more so when you look at the Steelers record without him: the Steelers are only 6-7 when he doesn't start. He's got the hardware too: he's started three Super Bowls, is a six-time Pro Bowl selection, a three-time 1st team All-Pro and the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The guy could hang 'em up now and he's a Hall of Famer.
What resonates even stronger is what Pittsburgh hasn't done when he's been injured. The difference between having Polamalu in or out of the lineup is monumental, especially the last two seasons.
Steelers' defense with and without Polamalu since 2009:
Win-Loss: With: 17-5 ... Without: 6-7; Points per game allowed: With: 15.9 ... Without: 21.5; Interceptions: With: 28 ... Without: 6
But, as I said before, Polamalu is more than the sum of his parts. It's a series of splash plays that sets Polamalu apart. He has an uncanny ability to give the Steelers just what's needed just at the right time. Whether it's a strip sack, an INT, or a forced fumble Polamalu has been the Steelers Superman on many occasions. What more needs to be said? It's Troy Polamalu, hands down.
But then again..
Maybe there is no clear cut better player. Let's face it, they do play essentially two different positions. Polamalu is a Strong Safety and, by definition plays within 10-15 yards of the line of scrimmage most of the time. Watch game film of him and you'll see this to be the case. He plays within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage over 70% of the time. Ed Reed, on the other hand, is a Free Safety and plays, given the field position at the time, within 20-30 yards off the line. It's somewhat the difference between a Short Stop and a Center Fielder: one plays up and one plays deep. Their duties tend to differ therefore as well. Not to a great degree, but they do nonetheless. Yes, Reed has more INTs than Polamalu, but he's supposed to, it's his job. Troy has more tackles and sacks than Reed, but he should, he plays closer to the line. Look at it like this: two of the best Safeties in the last 25 years were Ronnie Lott and Rodney Harrison. Both were great players and both were complete players. But what sets them apart from one another is that Lott, who played Free Safety most of his career, retired with 63 INTs to Harrison's 34, while Harrison, a Strong Safety, recorded 30.5 sacks to Lott's 8.5. Get the point?
Look, I could spout numbers (too many), Pro Bowls (13), All-Pros (8), Super Bowls (3), and awards (2) and skew them however I want. If I were on Reed's side I could point out that he, if he continues at the pace he's on, will most likely break the NFL record for career INTs. If I were on Polamalu's side I could point out that he's played in over 20 fewer games, 36 fewer as a starter, and therefore his numbers aren't nearly as far behind Reed's as it would seem at first glance. Also, that he's a two-time Super Bowl winner whereas Reed hasn't even been to the Super Bowl. But none of those reasons are truly definitive as each can be broken down. i.e. When have any of Reed's INTs been in a truly "big" moment or in a playoff game? He hasn't even led them to a Super Bowl. Or, so what that Polamalu has two Super Bowl Rings? So does Bubby Brister. What did he do in those games? This argument could last for years...unless you happen to favor one color over another.
Honestly, I think the best description given regarding the two safeties was given by Kurt Warner when he said that 'before the ball is snapped and thrown, it's Polamalu. But once the ball is thrown, it's Reed'. Couldn't say it better myself. But I understand that you're reading this and expecting an answer. In that case then, in my opinion the best Safety in the NFL is...