OWINGS MILLS – Troy Polamalu is unlikely to be ignored this time, not after the way he bolted into the Baltimore Ravens’ backfield to deck quarterback Joe Flacco for a costly sack and forced fumble.
It was the Pittsburgh Steelers’ gifted strong safety who set up a game-winning touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to fullback Isaac Redman with this pivotal turnover late in the fourth quarter during the Ravens’ 13-10 loss at M&T Bank Stadium.
Now, the Ravens have made new contingency plans to account for Polamalu as they prepare for Saturday’s AFC divisional playoff game against the Steelers at Heinz Field.
"You’ve got to know where he is at all times," left offensive tackle Michael Oher said. "He’s a game-changer, so do not let him loose next time is what we’re thinking. He’s won a lot of games on his own."
It was Oher who didn’t shift over to block Polamalu during the last game against Pittsburgh, reacting to a defensive lineman that lined up across his face.
The communication breakdown ultimately led to no one blocking arguably the Steelers’ most dangerous defender.
"I think when you look back on it, we could have handled it a little bit differently," Flacco said. "If that same situation comes up this game, I’m pretty sure that we’re going to handle it, and we’re going to be disappointed if we don’t. Yeah, great play by him. At the same time, it’s something that we probably should have handled."
Blocking Polamalu wouldn’t earn the Ravens a checkmate against the Steelers’ confusing pass rush that’s built on the hallmarks of legendary defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau’s innovative zone-blitz schemes.
That’s not even half the battle.
The Ravens also have to stonewall Pro Bowl outside linebackers James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley, who combined for 20 ½ sacks this season.
They play with outstanding leverage, closing speed and a mean streak that seems to be innate to Steelers linebackers over the years going back to the Jack Lambert and Jack Ham era to Greg Lloyd, Kevin Greene and this modern day vintage of havoc-causers.
"They’re both two great players, great athletes," offensive tackle Marshal Yanda said. "Woodley’s got a bull rush and he’s really strong and he can work the edge, too. He kind of lulls you to sleep by trying to bull you, bull you, bull you and if you can’t stop the bull then he’s going to run you over all day. When you get him stopped a little bit, then he’s going to work his hands.
"He’s a football player he’s an athlete he’s got more than one move. The good defensive ends have more than one move just like Harrison has got a spin move and the speed upfield. Some guys only have a bull rush or can only work the edge and can’t run you over so you set the edge and if he tries to run you over you gather and stop him. If you set for the edge and Woodley gets under your pads, then you’re going back"
Neither Woodley or Harrison is classically big for the position, at least not in terms of stature.
Harrison is generously listed at 6-foot, but is a sculpted 242 pounds.
He’s built like a fire hydrant, bull-necked with massive arms and a wide lower body. He’s explosive running into the backfield.
Woodley is 6-foot-2 and a stocky 265 pounds. A lot of his mass is in his lower body.
It’s a tough assignment for any pass blocker.
"They have leverage, especially Harrison," Yanda said. "They’re built for leverage, power and speed. They’re probably the best tandem in the league, no doubt."
A former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison was named to the Pro Bowl for a fourth consecutive year.
He registered 100 tackles, six forced fumble and two interceptions.
Two years ago, he broke the franchise record with 16 sacks.
Woodley and Harrison combined for 23 ½ sacks last year after piling up 27 ½ sacks two years ago to break the record of 24 previously held by Jason Gildon and Joey Porter.
Woodley posted 10 sacks this season, intercepting two passes with one returned for a touchdown as he forced three fumbles and recovered two more.
"You kind of know their game, you understand the way they rush the passer," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said. "They both have an array of pass-rush moves, but they start with power. When you start with power and explosiveness, they both have a tremendous take-off. They time up the snap, those kinds of things.
"That makes it tough on tackles as far as the pass rush. They both can play the run very well. They’re both very strong, heavy-handed guys, but there’s always something different. They put them in some different spot; they bring them in from some different place every single game. We’ll have to see what the plan is this week."
The Ravens allowed 40 sacks during the regular season and gave up another four during last week’s 30-7 wild-card win over the Kansas City Chiefs.
Oher had trouble blocking outside linebacker Tamba Hali, who’s essentially a bigger version of Harrison and Woodley.
Respect for the Steelers’ pass rushing tandem extends to the defensive side of the football.
"I’ve got a lot of respect for them," outside linebacker Jarret Johnson said. "I play the same position as they do, so I understand what’s going on with it and they’re really good. They’re probably, as a tandem, they’re probably best in the league.
"They’re both bigger, more muscular, stocky guys, so yeah. Their technique sets them apart also. They’re pretty legit guys."