Mirror Images: Ben Roethlisberger-Troy Polamalu

All Pittsburgh, all the time for the former Browns scout Matt Williamson. Photo by Alex Abboud.

Big risks yield big plays – and big mistakes. Photo by Alex Abboud.


By Cian Fahey,  Pre Snap Reads

Editor’s Note: A game I’ve been playing in my head in recent months is to take an offensive player and find his mirror image on the opposite side of the line of scrimmage. For example, Joey Galloway and Darrell Green were stylistically mirror images of each other. Both had amazing speed that sometimes overshadowed their underrated displays of craft at their respective positions over the course of lengthy and productive careers. Now I’m putting it on the blog and having some of my friends play.

Probably the saddest and most disturbing story of this off-season has been that of young Titus Young. I shouldn’t really call the wide receiver “young”, because he’s actually older than I am. But I feel there is a certain level of empathy that everyone can feel with the troubled star and his issues aren’t a reflection of youth, experience, or anything like that. For whatever reason, Young embarked on a misguided journey full of reckless actions this off-season, reckless actions that ultimately landed him in prison and out of the league.

For the moment at least, Young’s recklessness will force him to focus on fixing his life rather than concentrating on reclaiming his career. Plenty of players have proven that they can rebound from personal struggles to build a successful career. What Young has done isn’t impossible to recover from.

However, this story is not about Young. It’s about the character trait of recklessness.

Young was reckless with his decision-making both as a football player and a citizen. It’s the on-field perception of the term that interests me. Being reckless isn’t something that is supposed to be celebrated unless it’s the affable rogue in some adventure film. In today’s league it is typically associated with off-the-field decisions like Young’s or the much-maligned head shots defensive backs deliver in the passing game.

Still, there are reckless players who we celebrate. It’s the first quality that comes to mind with Ben Roethlisberger and Troy Polamalu.

The Pittsburgh Steelers’ teammates have many positive traits that are often celebrated first. Both have two Super Bowl rings, and nearly earned another. Both have a plethora of Pro Bowl trips under their belts and both have been considered amongst the best in the league at their positions for most of their careers.

Both are great individual players, but have special skills as improvisers that make fitting into a team’s structure a difficult balance for bringing out the best in these star players while maintaining team efficiency.

No season shows off the similarities between Roethlisberger and Polamalu more than the 2008 trip to the Super Bowl.

Bruce Arians and Dick LeBeau had built their offensive and defensive schemes around their two superstar players. Roethlisberger was given free rein while working under Arians. He wasn’t asked to win games in the same way Peyton Manning or Tom Brady were. He didn’t lead a high-powered offense based on precise timing that comes from spotting flaws in the game film and pitch-perfect technique.

Instead he was asked to produce a handful of big plays and clutch scoring drives when the team needed him most – often doing it in the moment.

Fewer timing routes. Less reliance on an internal clock set to unload the ball when the pocket got hot. Roethlisberger was not only allowed to extend plays and endure the punishment of the opposing defense, he was encouraged to play “backyard football”. Arians called plays, but some of the team’s most important plays throughout the season were whatever Roethlisberger and his receivers were going to create on the fly. He broke all the rules of pocket-passing and disregarded any consideration for his health behind an already questionable offensive line.

On the other side of the ball, Lebeau’s defense didn’t just allow Polamalu to freelance. He made the safety’s improvisational skill a crucial part of their overall setup. From snap-to-snap, Polamalu would either be jumping over the line of scrimmage to sack the quarterback, intercepting a pass in a position where he never should have been in the first place, or making a massive hit in the open field to prevent a big play.

Just like Roethlisberger’s (in)famous touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes Baltimore, Polamalu’s signature play came against the Ravens when he intercepted Joe Flacco for a game-sealing touchdown, sending the Steelers to the Super Bowl.

Even though Roethlisberger threw 15 interceptions to 17 touchdowns, the 2008 season was a success because the team embraced the a risk-reward philosophy that embraced the idea that they could make big mistakes if they were consistently aggressive.  This approach lowers overall consistency, but demonstrated that a team could ride the ebbs and flows to a championship.

When Roethlisberger extends plays he exposes himself to more hits, stresses his offensive line. and tires out his receivers. He also increases the potential for turnovers. When Polamalu freelances, he stresses Ryan Clark’s ability to cover for him. His aggressive approach to tackling also yields some big misses. Since the 2008 season, Polamalu has missed close to 40 tackles despite missing the bulk of two seasons.

Roethlisberger and Polamalu are players who live on their physical prowess, natural football ability, and most importantly, game-changing plays. Without those game-changing plays, they quickly lose their luster and both players have shortened their careers with their approach to the game. Roethlisberger is just 31, but has taken the punishment of a player who is 35-36. Polamalu has missed 22 regular season starts in the past four years.

Both will go down as great players for a franchise that has more great players in its history than an egg-timer has grains of sand. Both will have strong cases for the NFL Hall of Fame even if neither actually makes it. And both have signature moments that will forever be chronicled and replayed as the years go by.

Roethlisberger and Polamalu epitomize the positive side of reckless.

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