By Dale Grdnic
PITTSBURGH — Troy Polamalu’s staking his claim for the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, and with a game-changing play for the second straight week he certainly could be the front-runner.
With the Pittsburgh Steelers trailing 7-0, Polamalu picked off former USC roommate Carson Palmer and returned it 45 yards for a score. It’s his second pick six in a regular-season game, and the other was off Palmer as well.
Polamalu also intercepted Palmer with less than two minutes remaining to seal a 23-7 win against the Cincinnati Bengals in an AFC North matchup Sunday afternoon at Heinz Field. The Steelers other touchdown was a pick six by LaMarr Woodley, while Shaun Suisham kicked field goals from 23, 35 and 41 yards.
“I’m glad Troy’s on my team,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “The first one was Troy being Troy. This guy, no one is playing as good as Troy Polamalu in football right now, in my opinion. When we need a play, he provides it, and he did that today.”
The Steelers appeared to be in dire straits last week at Baltimore, but Polamalu drilled Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco and forced a fumble that Woodley recovered and ran toward the goal line. The Steelers scored the winning points a short time later.
“I don’t think it’s anything that I do specifically,” Polamalu understated. “It’s more about our defensive coaches putting us in a situation where we can make plays, so I’m just taking advantage of that. That’s all it is.”
Palmer had no answer for Polamalu on the field and no response afterward.
“I don’t know,” Palmer said when asked about the initial pick six. “I’m going to have to look at that one on film. I’m not sure what happened with our guys. … The one Woodley had, I never even saw him. It was a play-action pass, and I never saw him at all. (But) he made a great play on the ball.”
The Steelers trailed 7-0 after giving up a game-opening touchdown drive where two penalties were crucial to allowing the score. Woodley jumped offside when it appeared that a third-down play was stopped, and cornerback Ike Taylor had a pass-interference penalty in the end zone to make it first down at the 1.
The Steelers actually ramped up their defensive intensity the series before Polamalu’s pick. New punter Jeremy Kapinos boomed a 53-yarder inside the 20, and the Bengals appeared to be on their way to another long drive. However, Woodley got a seven-yard sack on first down from their 27. Lawrence Ti> mmons drilled Cedric Benson for minus-three on a screen pass, and Ryan Clark hammered Terrell Owens to force an incompletion and punt.
After the Steelers punted, Polamalu read a Palmer pass toward Owens, picked it off and returned it 45 yards toward the goal line. As he appeared to be headed out of bounds at the 1, Polamalu reached out his right arm and sailed the ball over the pylon for a touchdown. That made it 7-7.
A false start and William Gay sack off a blitz ended Cincinnati’s ensuing drive after three downs, and the Steelers drove for a 23-yard field goal with 21 seconds left in the first half. And the momentum, clearly changed.
“The play of the game, obviously, was Troy’s interception,” Not only did he pick it off, but he returned it for a touchdown. We still didn’t put them away. They had a chance to make a drive and get back in it, but we didn’t let them.
“Wood (LaMarr Woodley) made a tremendous pick and scored a touchdown. So, we played well on defense, but we didn’t want them to get the points that they did in the last game in the fourth quarter We were able to shut them down after that, and Troy added the last interception to end it.”
With the Steelers still holding a precarious lead, 13-7 through three quarters, Woodley basically sealed it. Palmer lobbed a pass in the flat to Chad Johnson, and Woodley got in the lane to pick it off and return it 14 yards for a score.
“Their first drive for a touchdown, that was definitely on me,” Woodley said. “But my teammates were very supportive. … I was able to go out there and make a play, (because) Coach LeBeau put me in position and we did a great job as a team.”
It was the first time the Steelers had two pick sixes since cornerback Dewayne Washington had a 52-yard touchdown return off an interception and added a 78-yard pick for a score against the Jacksonville Jaguars Nov. 22, 1998 at Three Rivers Stadium.
“Coach LeBeau puts up all these stats, and I believe it’s in the 90th percentile that when you score two defensive touchdowns you win the game 90 percent of the time,” Clark said. “So, it was big, but those are two big-time players.
“(They’re) two Pro-Bowl players, and Troy certainly is playing like the MVP in the league on defense right now. And that’s what we need, guys to step up and make plays, so it was a total effort by our team.”
And if Polamalu continues to do that, few could argue if he receives the top defensive honor in the NFL.