OWINGS MILLS – Baiting quarterbacks, bashing wide receivers and breaking records, Ed Reed and Troy Polamalu are regarded as a breed apart as the top safeties in the game.
They patrol the secondary with natural instincts, flowing smoothly around the field with an innate reaction that traditionally lands them in the path of the football.
It’s a position that demands intelligence and toughness.
In the case of Reed and Polamalu, both aren’t afraid to gamble and neither has ever been accused of being conventional.
"Very instinctive," Baltimore Ravens veteran wide receiver Derrick Mason said. "Both of them study a lot of football. Obviously, football is all about feel and they feel the game. That’s why Ed is in places like, ‘Man, how did he get there?’"
With an unorthodox style and a grit that sets them apart, Reed and Polamalu are central figures in Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game at Heinz Field between the Ravens and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
For the Ravens, Reed led the NFL with eight interceptions despite missing the first six games of the regular season on the physically unable to perform list due to offseason hip surgery.
No one has as many interceptions as Reed (54) since the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year entered the league eight years ago, and no one has gained as many as his 1,438 interception return yards.
And Polamalu led the Steelers with seven interceptions to rank second in the AFC, also registering 82 tackles.
He also essentially won a 13-10 game in Baltimore for the Steelers last month with his sack and forced fumble when he blindsided Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco to set up Ben Roethlisberger’s game-winning touchdown pass to Isaac Redman.
Polamalu is a six-time Pro Bowl selection who has intercepted 26 career passes with 514 tackles and eight sacks.
When there’s a play needed to be made, invariably Reed and Polamalu are in the thick of the action.
"One thing I think about these two safeties is they have unbelievable hands," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "These are two guys that just have a great ability to catch the football, and that gives them a chance to make plays on the ball downfield.
"They make great catches, so they get turnovers. They’re both hitters, they both are very instinctive, they both know the game inside and out, all those things that everybody talks about."
Reed is playing this week after spending time with his grieving family after his younger brother went missing after diving into the Mississippi River to elude police. The search has been called off.
He declined an interview request.
With Reed’s range and impactful style, he’s one of the most dynamic defensive players in the NFL.
He has scored 13 career touchdowns, including the playoffs, and is the only player in league history to return touchdowns off a punt return, blocked punt, interception and a fumble recovery.
"Ed brings an element that very few players bring to the table," Harbaugh said. "He has really, really special hands and body control so he can make plays that most guys can’t make. He covers more ground, too, but really, more than anything, he really understands the game, understands the defenses and understands the scheme he is up against."
Polamalu is 8-2 in the playoffs.
And he has 51 career tackles in the postseason with three interceptions, returning one Flacco pass 40 yards for a touchdown in the AFC championship game two years ago.
Stocky at 5-foot-10, 207 pounds, Polamalu plays strong safety and operates as more of an enforcer near the line of scrimmage.
And Reed, who has a slimmer build than Polamalu at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, tends to play more of a pure centerfield role. He’s not as inclined to attack or blitz anymore because of a nagging nerve impingement in his neck that has plagued him for the last few years.
"I don’t know if there’s that much of a difference," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said. "They both prepare incredibly and they just love the game. And those are the two few safeties that actually turn the game into an offensive possession when they do have the ball in their hands.
"I think that’s what makes both of those guys who they are, Ed and Troy. It’s an honor watching both of them play. It’s a real honor to sit back and watch, probably, two of the best safeties to ever play this game go at it."