Polamalu has Sanchez's full attention

When Mark Sanchez played football at USC, he looked up to Troy Polamalu every day. Literally.

Inside the Trojans' team room is a giant action photo of Polamalu, decked out in his cardinal and gold colors, alongside other former USC greats. The team meetings are held in that room, and that's where then coach Pete Carroll occasionally dropped Polamalu's name in his speeches, describing the star safety as the ultimate teammate.

"Troy was one of the biggest ones up there," Sanchez said in a sitdown with ESPNNewYork.com before last month's game in Pittsburgh. "It's like he was there in every meeting. It was weird."

Once again, Polamalu looms over Sanchez, but in a different way.

This time, Polamalu is the enemy, a real-life, not-in-a-photo-anymore obstacle that separates Sanchez from his fifth playoff road win (that would be an NFL record for quarterbacks) -- and, more importantly, a ticket for the New York Jets to Super Bowl XLV in Dallas.

Sanchez didn't have to face Polamalu in last month's 22-17 victory over the Steelers -- the Pittsburgh safety missed the game with an Achilles-related injury -- but the Jets' quarterback won't be so lucky Sunday for the AFC Championship Game at Heinz Field.

Polamalu is back, and that changes everything.

"You have to account for him on every play," wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery said. "If you don't find where he is, he's going to wreck the game for you."

Polamalu is a disruptive force in all phases of the game -- playing the pass, defending the run, blitzing, you name it. He's so fast, so instinctive that he allows defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to be more unpredictable.

LeBeau can make like he's playing a "Madden" video game, moving Polamalu all over the place. He can make plays behind the line of scrimmage and 20 yards downfield. LeBeau can blitz a cornerback or safety, knowing Polamalu can be a safety net in pass coverage. Or he can just send Polamalu after the quarterback.

It's hard for experienced quarterbacks to figure out the Polamalu-induced chaos, let alone a second-year passer facing him for the first time.

"You watch him on film and he plays like his hair is on fire, and he's got a lot of hair, so that's a lot of fire," said Sanchez, who did extensive film study on Polamalu in anticipation of facing him in the teams' previous meeting.

"He'll try to mess with your reads," Sanchez continued. "Troy will read your eyes. It's not like he's guessing on game day; he's got good reasons for doing the things he does. He game-plans really well, it's obvious. It looks like he knows what's coming before the snap. He can mess you up. If you're looking for a plain, vanilla coverage, you're not going to find it too many times."

Polamalu's impact on the Steelers' defense is enormous. Over the past two seasons, Pittsburgh was 15-4 and allowed 14.5 points per game with him in the lineup. Without him, the Steelers were 6-7 and allowed 21.6.

Since 2006, the Steelers have forced 2.2 turnovers per game with Polamalu, 1.4 without him, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

"The guy is an amazing player," Jets coach Rex Ryan said. "Him and Ed Reed are the two best safeties I've ever seen."

The Jets were hardly prolific on offense in last month's matchup, managing only one touchdown (a bootleg run by Sanchez) and 276 total yards, but they avoided the killer mistakes -- only one sack allowed for 0 yards and no turnovers.

Polamalu's health still bears watching. He's still nursing the injury, still missing practices and he wasn't a huge factor in the divisional win over the Baltimore Ravens. Curiously, he was used predominantly in deep coverage, with Ryan Clark deployed as the "in-the-box" safety.

To Sanchez, a few years behind Polamalu at USC, he'll always be that larger-than-life player on the wall.

"He always seemed like one of the toughest, best players you'd always want to play with -- and never want to play against," Sanchez said.

On Sunday, the picture comes to life.