Polamalu saves Steelers in 23-7 win over Bengals
The Pittsburgh Steelers weren't winning like this last season. Didn't have a defense like this last season. Weren't positioned for at least a No. 2 seeding in the AFC playoffs last season.
They also didn't have Troy Polamalu at this time last season. It's not a coincidence.
On a day the Steelers (10-3) had a major letdown against a division rival that lost its 10th consecutive game, Polamalu didn't let up at all on defense.
Polamalu's 45-yard interception return touchdown late in the second quarter was the biggest momentum-shifting play of the Steelers' 23-7 victory over Cincinnati on Sunday, and he later added a second interception.
Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer, Polamalu's former college teammate, talked all week about the dangers of ignoring Polamalu wherever he is on the field. He then failed to follow his own advice, with predictable results.
''He's the best defensive player in the league,'' Palmer said.
Polamalu, who missed the Steelers' final seven games last season with a knee injury, is making a strong case to win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. He has six interceptions, and he's made a pivotal play each of the last three weeks.
He saved the Steelers from a potentially huge upset loss with an interception at the goal line late in regulation of a 19-16 overtime victory at Buffalo two weeks ago.
Last week, his tomahawk chop dislodged the ball from quarterback Joe Flacco as the Ravens were trying to run down the clock while leading late in the fourth quarter. The fumble he caused led to Ben Roethlisberger's decisive touchdown pass as Pittsburgh rallied to win 13-10 and take over the AFC North lead from Baltimore (8-4), which plays Houston on Monday night.
The Steelers' response? We've seen this before.
''Troy is Troy,'' linebacker James Farrior said. ''He's an amazing player who makes amazing plays. Nothing he does surprises me.''
Nor do they surprise Palmer, who now has 18 interceptions - five for touchdowns. Both of Pittsburgh's touchdown came on interceptions as LaMarr Woodley scored on a 14-yard return early in the fourth quarter, making it 20-7.
''Completely my fault,'' Palmer said. ''This loss is completely on my shoulders.''
Both of Polamalu's two regular season interception return touchdowns are against his former Southern Cal roommate. The other came against Palmer in 2004.
''No one is playing as good as Troy Polamalu in football right now, in my opinion,'' Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. ''When we need a play, he provides it.''
No question the Steelers' offense needed it.
The Steelers had a 10-minute edge in time of possession, and they held the ball for all but 1 minute, 45 seconds of the third quarter, yet they managed only three Shaun Suisham field goals all day. He is 9 for 9 since replacing Jeff Reed as Pittsburgh's kicker.
''I think one drive we went 140 yards, we kept going back and forth and back and forth,'' Roethlisberger said of a 9 1/2-minute drive in which Pittsburgh had three holding penalties. ''It's not good enough because we have to score points. Field goals aren't good enough. Luckily our defense bailed us out.''
Luckily Polamalu bailed them out.
''He has talent like no one else,'' safety Ryan Clark said. ''He's just making amazing plays right now.''
The Bengals (2-11) can't seem to make any plays. They're within one loss of matching the franchise-record 11-game losing streak of 1992-93. They've already equaled the single-season streak of 10 set in 1993.
''Ten straight. That's it, that's where this team is right now, 10 straight,'' linebacker Brandon Johnson said. ''We've got a lot of problems. We need a lot of answers.''
Good luck on finding them soon. There was no running game - Cedric Benson was held to 19 yards - and the interceptions kept prematurely ending drives. Terrell Owens, on the verge of a 10th 1,000-yard season, made only one catch and apparently ran the incorrect pass route on the Polamalu touchdown return play.
''We've played well in games, we played tough,'' said Andrew Whitworth, who made a 1-yard TD catch on a tackle-eligible play in the first quarter. ''Teams after every game are like, 'Man, you guys are all hard to deal with, if you can just stop hurting yourselves.' We got to find a way to stop hurting ourselves. The season is going to be over if we don't figure it out.''
Polamalu already has all but assured that the Steelers' season will last much longer than it did last season, when Pittsburgh didn't make the playoffs.
''We've got to finish up these last few games, and it starts with the Jets (on Sunday),'' Farrior said.