Polamalu, who turns 34 on April 19, started 142 regular-season games for the Steelers, emerged as one of the faces of the franchise and won a pair of Super Bowls during his time in Pittsburgh.
The 2003 first-round draft pick will go down as one of the greatest -- and most memorable -- players in franchise history.
Polamalu made eight Pro Bowls -- two fewer than Mel Blount and Donnie Shell combined -- and earned All-Pro honors six times, including first-team recognition in 2005, 2008, 2010 and 2011.
Polamalu won the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010 after he tied his career high with seven interceptions and also recorded 82 tackles and a sack.
Here are 10 things to know about Polamalu from his time with the Steelers.
1. One of the mysteries of Polamalu is how someone who is so soft-spoken and unfailingly polite off the field was able to morph into a human missile during games. Defensive end Brett Keisel and cornerback Ike Taylor are the only players who were teammates with Polamalu for all 12 of his seasons. Keisel isn't sure when the transformation would take place, but he knows Polamalu gave himself plenty of time before games. “He’s always the first guy at the stadium. Always,” Keisel said last season. “I don’t know exactly what he does because he’s there hours and hours before everybody else. I’m assuming he transforms into this psychopath that comes out and plays. I don’t know if it takes six hours before game day to make the transformation complete, but for some reason he’s there way before everyone else.”
2. There may have never been a louder roar at Heinz Field than after Polamalu read the eyes of Joe Flacco in the fourth quarter of the 2008 AFC Championship Game and picked off the rookie quarterback. Polamalu weaved his way 40 yards before diving into the end zone to all but clinch the win that sent the Steelers to Super Bowl XLIII. Believe it or not, that is Polamalu’s only career interception against the Ravens but not the last time he made a big play in a crucial game against the Steelers’ archrival. Two seasons later, Polamalu blitzed from Flacco’s blind side with the Steelers trailing 10-6 with less than four minutes left in the fourth quarter at M&T Bank Stadium. He pounced on Flacco as the Ravens quarterback was cocking his arm, forcing a fumble that LaMarr Woodley returned to the Ravens’ 9-yard line. The Steelers don’t make the Super Bowl if they don’t win that game. And they don’t win the game without Polamalu’s strip-sack giving them the short field they needed to score the decisive touchdown in a 13-10 win.
3. Polamalu intercepted 32 passes, tied for seventh in Steelers history, and added three more in the postseason. He intercepted passes against 17 different teams, but forgive the Cleveland Browns if they feel like Polamalu, well, picked on them. Eight of his career interceptions came against the Browns, which is one reason why Pittsburgh lost just three times to Cleveland in Polamalu’s 12 seasons. The Browns weren’t the only team Polamalu tormented in the AFC North. He intercepted five passes against the Cincinnati Bengals and two his three interception returns for touchdowns in the regular season came after Polamalu picked off Carson Palmer, his former roommate at Southern California.
4. Polamalu isn’t even in the NFL’s top 100 for career interceptions, something that could be an issue when he is eligible for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But he passes the eye test for Canton because of how timely and spectacular he was when he was picking off passes. He crafted his own highlight reel of interceptions, from the leaping one-handed pick he made against the Tennessee Titans in 2009 to his diving, cupped-hand interception against the San Diego Chargers in 2008. “He’s like a [Dick] ‘Night Train’ Lane or Lem Barney,” former Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of the players who, like him, are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. “The splash plays that those guys made, you never know when one’s going to hit. There’s something innate and special in that type of an athlete.”
5. If you can name the Browns players -- with an emphasis on players -- whom Polamalu intercepted, consider yourself an expert on him. If not, here is the most obscure of trivia answers. Polamalu picked off Jeff Garcia, Kelly Holcomb, Derek Anderson, Josh Cribbs, Colt McCoy (twice), Seneca Wallace and Thad Lewis when they were with the Browns. And no, Cribbs is not a misprint. Polamalu intercepted the Browns’ return specialist/wide receiver in a Steelers 27-14 win in 2009.
6. Polamalu’s most timely interception may have been the one that ultimately did not count in a 2005 AFC divisional-round game against the Indianapolis Colts. He made a diving interception with just under six minutes left in the game and the Steelers leading the heavily favored Colts 21-10. Polamalu lost the ball when he got up to run with it and the Colts challenged the call of interception on the field. The call was reversed after an official review, but the NFL later admitted that Polamalu’s interception should have stood. The Colts took advantage of the reprieve to score a touchdown and a two-point conversion, setting up one of the most dramatic finishes in Steelers history. Imagine the anguish Steelers fans would have been spared had Polamalu’s interception counted. Instead the Steelers had to survive a Jerome Bettis lost fumble and a missed Mike Vanderjagt field goal to topple the heavily favored Colts and keep moving toward their first Super Bowl title since 1979.
7. Polamalu got the better of Kerry Collins when he made the one-handed pick of the Titans quarterback in the first game of the 2009 season. But the veteran quarterback had to be more surprised by Polamalu a season later with the line-of-scrimmage leaps that became Polamalu’s signature as much as his flowing hair. Polamalu timed a jump perfectly near the goal line and landed on Collins’ back right as the QB received the snap, blowing up the play before it started in a 19-11 win. Steelers free safety Mike Mitchell unwittingly showed how difficult it is to time a snap and dive over the line of scrimmage last season. Mitchell, near the end of a New York Jets 20-13 win, launched himself at quarterback Michael Vick. But he got flipped into the air by an offensive lineman and landed on his back, drawing the ire of the Jets.
8. The flowing hair that trailed Polamalu as he tore across football fields, chopping down running backs and tormenting quarterbacks, helped make him one of the most distinctive players of his generation. It landed him a job as pitch man for Head & Shoulders shampoo and also got Polamalu taken down in an unorthodox way after one of his 32 regular-season interceptions. Polamalu picked off a deflected pass in the third quarter of a 45-7 rout of the Kansas City Chiefs in 2006 and started running it back at Heinz Field. Chiefs running back Larry Johnson pulled down Polamalu by his hair at the end of a 49-yard return. Johnson did not get penalized for the tackle since hair is considered part of the uniform, and Polamalu did not take offense to it. “If I've got the ball in my hands, they can tackle me all day like that,” Polamalu said after the game. “It really doesn't matter to me. He can tackle me by my hair or my ankles.”
9. Freelancing has been such a big part of Polamalu’s game and identity. But his staying put set up one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history. The Arizona Cardinals were at the Steelers’ 1-yard line right before halftime in the 2008 Super Bowl when Polamalu recognized the formation and knew a slant pass was going to Anquan Boldin. Polamalu, however, was on the other side of the field and stayed there instead of trying to rush over to Boldin. Good thing for the Steelers as outside linebacker James Harrison dropped into coverage even though he was supposed to blitz. Harrison picked off Kurt Warner’s pass and rumbled 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the half. The two probably would have collided had Polamalu also tried to make a play on Warner’s pass. “It’s the second-greatest play in Steelers history,” Polamalu told ESPN.com last June. “Everyone wants to look Santonio’s catch as winning a Super Bowl but James’ play was a 14-point turnaround. It won us a Super Bowl.”
10. The Steelers have traded up in the first round of the NFL draft just twice since Kevin Colbert joined the organization in 2000 as the director of player operations. Colbert, now the Steelers’ general manager, and coach Bill Cowher struck gold when they moved from 27th to 16th in the first round to take Polamalu. The Steelers gave up third- and sixth-round draft picks to swap spots with the Chiefs in the first round. Steelers fans could be forgiven if they initially wondered whether Pittsburgh had made a mistake. Polamalu did not start a game in 2003 as he struggled, as most rookies do, to learn the defense. But he led the Steelers with 25 special-teams tackles.