For more than a decade the debate raged between Pittsburgh Steelers safety Troy Polamalu and Baltimore Ravens safety Ed Reed as to which was the best safety in the NFL. Now NFL writer Gil Brandt has put together his list of the best safeties of all time and on this list Polamalu comes out on top.
Polamalu came in at No. 2 on the list while Reed was just behind him at No. 4. Even though they were somewhat contrasting styles of player their time in the league together will forever link their careers.
During his 12-year career with the Steelers Polamalu started 142 games and had 770 tackles. He also finished with 32 interceptions which might not seem like a lot, but the reason you remember so many is they were often such dramatic plays at key times of games.
Also making the list from the Steelers was Donnie Shell who checked in at No. 8. Since his career ended back in 1987 he’s probably best known because he’s the best player from those great Steel Curtain defenses that isn’t in the Pro Football Hall of Fame but should be.
The Troy Polamalu — Ed Reed debate has finally been settled…for now.
On Wednesday, NFL.com’s Gil Brand tabbed Polamalu as the second greatest safety of all-time while selecting Reed as the fourth safety in NFL history. Brandt picked former Giant Emlen Tunnell as the greatest safety in NFL history.
An eight time Pro Bowler, four time All-Pro and the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year, Polamalu helped lead Pittsburgh’s run to a pair of championships in the 2000s. A nine time Pro Bowler, eight time All-Pro and the 2004 Defensive Player of the Year, Reed helped the Ravens win Super Bowl XLVII before retiring after the 2013 season.
After not starting as a rookie, Polamalu earned his first Pro Bowl selection in 2004, picking off five passes while helping the Steelers reach the AFC Championship Game. Polamalu was even better in 2005, earning his first All-Pro selection while spearheading Pittsburgh’s run to a victory in Super Bowl XL. He continued to improve with each passing season, and was one of the NFL’s best players by the end of the decade.
Reed started immediately, picking off five passes his rookie season while retiring with 64 career interceptions. His best season took place in 2004, when set an NFL record with 358 interception return yards. Reed led the NFL with nine interceptions while setting a league record with an 106-yard interception return for a touchdown.
Despite playing different positions (Polamlau played free safety, Reed played strong safety), the two were compared to one another throughout their careers. Both players were known for their intelligence as well as their peerless athleticism along with their ability to change the entire complexion of a game on a single play.
Ravens and Steelers fans will never forget when Polamalu made one of those patented plays in the 2008 AFC Championship Game. With Baltimore trailing by two late in the fourth quarter, Polamalu picked off rookie quarterback Joe Flacco and scampered 40 yards into the end zone to give the Steelers’ a 23-14 lead en route to a trip to Super Bowl XLIII.
“What makes teams great? What makes games great? It’s these opportunities that seldom come in the huge stage of the AFC Championship Game,” Polamalu told NFL Network back in 2009. “You have a rookie quarterback, you have a rookie coach on their sideline. You’re thinking ‘Wow. What a great time for them to come back and kick a field goal and beat their rivals that they’ve lost to twice.’ All those things are running through your head. What a great story that would be for them. But it didn’t happen that way.”