ARLINGTON, Texas -- The Green Bay Packers spent the past two weeks trying to figure out how to neutralize the 2010 defensive player of the year. They accomplished that task by pretty much turning Steelers safety Troy Polamalu into a non-factor.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers vowed to know where Polamalu was on every play. And his ability to whistle passes through tight windows actually made Polamalu look slow for much of the evening. The man who had seven interceptions this season tried to force the issue and started guessing in a frantic effort to make plays. It may have been one of the worst games of his career, and it couldn't have happened on a bigger stage in a 31-25 loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Reporters offered the soft-spoken Polamalu a lifeline by bringing up the Achilles tendon injury that's plagued him throughout the season. He headed that off quickly, saying he simply ran into a quarterback who's on fire.
"It was the healthiest I've been," Polamalu said, "the best I've felt probably since the middle of the season."
Packers wide receiver Greg Jennings caught both of his touchdowns against Polamalu. Jennings said that on the first score the Steelers were in a Cover 2 scheme and Polamalu was forced to choose between covering two receivers running similar routes.
"He chose wrong," said Jennings, whose 21-yard touchdown gave the Packers a 21-3 lead in the second quarter.
The Packers didn't show much interest in the running game (11 attempts), in part because they didn't want Polamalu near the line of scrimmage. Because Green Bay constantly spread the field with four wide receivers, Polamalu rarely played close to the line.
"We wanted to keep him out in space," said Jennings. "If you can contain him in some ways and keep him on a guy that he's uncomfortable with, you have a lot better chance."
Polamalu was even more pensive than usual following the game. He took blame for both touchdown passes to Jennings and indicated that he put his cornerbacks in bad situations by trying to get too "creative." Rodgers connected with Jordy Nelson for a 38-yard pass early in the fourth quarter that set up the Packers to take a 28-17 lead. Polamalu also took the blame for the pass to Nelson and the subsequent 8-yard touchdown pass to Jennings.
He guessed that Jennings was going to run a post because he'd seen him do it so many times on film, but the wide receiver ran a corner route and scored easily.
"That was completely my fault," said Polamalu. "Earlier in the game, they ran Jennings down the middle and I was anticipating that same pass play and I guessed wrong."
Polamalu's given the freedom to freelance in this defense because he's such an instinctive player, but perhaps a more conventional approach would have served him better against Rodgers. The Packers made him uncomfortable throughout the game. Polamalu has told reporters in the past that he constantly fears getting beat despite his brilliant play. But on Sunday night, his fears were realized against a quarterback who can pretty much do anything he wants right now.
This isn't the first time this season the Steelers' secondary has looked vulnerable, but Polamalu often made up for its errors. In this game, he was the one making a lot of the mistakes. The Packers took the Steelers' most unique player and made him a liability.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was asked repeatedly about Polamalu's performance after the game. When someone asked whether he thought Polamalu made an impact in the game, Tomlin replied, "I'll let you be the judge."
It was one of those rare evenings when having one of the most versatile defensive players in the game didn't help the Steelers. Now, they have a lot of time to think about what went wrong. I guess Polamalu can be flattered the Packers were so worried about him.
But that won't bring much solace on this evening.