Paulk, Ralph N, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Troy Polamalu walked into the Steelers' locker room Thursday wearing a confident smile, one reflective of a mending, self- assured strong safety ready to play for the first time in eight weeks.
Polamalu, forced to sit with an ailing calf muscle since Oct. 7, is determined to play Sunday against AFC North rival Baltimore with the Steelers' playoff fate in a perilous state.
Polamalu is hoping to thrust himself back into action partly because a fourth straight defeat to Baltimore would even the Steelers' record at 6-6 and leave them scrambling for a wild-card playoff berth.
Also, the five-time All-Pro can't resist a challenge -- a head- to-head battle with Baltimore's oft-effusive All-Pro safety Ed Reed. For Polamalu, the Steelers-Ravens rivalry may be defined by their by presence, but mental and physical toughness factors into every outcome.
"I would say this game has been defined by the physicality," Polamalu said. "The beautiful thing about it is we take football to the purest essence in the sense that the more physical team always wins this matchup.
"No matter where or what the circumstances are -- or who's in the game -- it's always been the most physical team that survives. Speaking on philosophy, (free safety) Ryan Clark and I always talk about the defense is only as good as the safety play.
"What it pretty much comes down to is you can blame the safety for every touchdown that happens. It's either a missed tackle, we're out of position, we didn't make a right key, we didn't communicate, or we didn't encourage enough. It's all part of the safety's role."
Two of the best
Few have fulfilled their roles at safety better than Polamalu and Reed.
They have fueled arguably the most intense, competitive rivalry in the NFL over the past decade. They have dictated the outcome of most games with momentum-shifting plays or had a hand in a decisive turnover to solidify victory.
However, they haven't been nearly as effective this season. Polamalu's troublesome calf has limited him to five quarters. Reed has started every game, but the cumulative wear on his body has left him with slightly diminished skills.
Still, they are among the best safeties in the NFL. Their teams - - and this rivalry -- are better with them than without.
"This rivalry will always be intense," Reed said. "Baltimore and Pittsburgh are two of the greatest organizations in the league, and it's bigger than us.
"From the top down, these are great teams, organizations, and the rivalry is always going to be what it is. Steelers-Ravens is special."
They may have varying styles and personalities, but Polamalu and Reed are joined at the proverbial hip, in part, because in an era in which the Steelers and Ravens have dominated the division, they have been the most dominant playmakers.
"You think of this rivalry and you definitely think of those two guys," said Baltimore coach John Harbaugh. "They've been the two best safeties in football for years now. They play different styles with similar results."
Polamalu, a soft-spoken, 10-year veteran, doesn't exert himself with mindless chatter. He largely leads by example, often sacrificing his body with punishing blows that deter running backs and receivers from daring to challenge him.
With Polamalu set to return to the lineup, Harbaugh figures he isn't likely to see the same defense Baltimore faced two weeks ago.
"We don't treat it any differently because you have to look at the player playing the position, and you have to understand the structure of it," Harbaugh said. "Troy has a little more leeway in terms of changing the defense on the run.
"He does a great job of communicating that to the other defensive backs and getting them all coordinated on the same page. He's a guy you really have to track and can't really be certain about where he's going to be playing. …