Atlanta coach Jim Mora didn't split hairs yesterday when he talked about Steelers safety Troy Polamalu. He did not compare him to Sampson; he went one better.
Mora compared Polamalu to another Southern California standout, Ronnie Lott, perhaps the greatest safety in NFL history. Lott not only went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the first ballot, but he also was one of three safeties chosen to the NFL's 75th anniversary team.
"My favorite player in the history of football is Ronnie Lott," Mora said yesterday on the telephone. "He is the only player up on my wall that I have a picture of. I was watching film the last two days and kept thinking about Ronnie as I watched Troy."
High praise, indeed.
"Oooh, that's a huge comparison," Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor said. "That's huge. Huge!"
It's the kind of eye-opener that Bill Parcells prompted when, two years ago, he compared Ben Roethlisberger's rookie season to that of Dan Marino's.
Polamalu almost bashfully deflects that kind of praise as he does the news that the AFC made him the conference defensive player of the week yesterday.
"Humbled and honored," he said of Mora's comparison. "He can believe what he wants to believe. Obviously, Ronnie was a great NFL defensive back, but I couldn't agree with him at all."
Playing with a healthy right shoulder for the first time since it was bruised in the opening game, Polamalu led the Steelers with 10 tackles, knocked away two passes, intercepted another and returned it 49 yards. Among his tackles were three in a row on halfback Larry Johnson in the second quarter. The Chiefs had a second-and-2 at their 41 when Polamalu burst through their line and, with Larry Foote, tackled Johnson. On the next play, Polamalu dropped Johnson for a 2-yard loss.
"Those plays he made on short yardage," Mora gushed, "the second- and third-down ones where he hit the gaps; you talk about having great instincts and anticipation! He is so fun to watch. If you like defensive football, you love watching that guy play. He is inspiring."
He inspires his teammates, even the new ones. Linebacker Chad Brown, 36, played in a game against Lott, and he does not think Mora overstated the comparison of the two.
"Both are dynamic playmakers," Brown said. "I think Troy perhaps brings a little more athleticism to it than Lott did. Obviously, both guys are hitters. Ronnie was an intimidator whereas Troy can hurt you quite a few different ways.
"You have a guy here who's a triple threat. He can sack the quarterback, pick off passes and stop the run. I don't know what more you could want from a player. I suppose if you were to plan it out perfectly, you'd make him bigger and you'd cut his hair so he could bring that one back last week."
Polamalu is shorter at 5 feet 10, 207 pounds but more compact than was Lott at 6-0, 203. In his fourth season, Polamalu has a long way to go to equal Lott's record of 63 career interceptions and 10 Pro Bowls in a career that spanned from 1981-94. Polamalu was All-Pro last season and made two Pro Bowls in his first two seasons as a starter. His 49-yard return with an interception against Kansas City Sunday -- before Larry Johnson yanked him to the ground by his long hair -- was the ninth pickoff of his career.
"We'll have to see how his career pans out," Steelers linebacker James Farrior said. "I mean, Ronnie Lott's one of the best safeties to ever play the game. Troy's doing some fantastic things right now. That's a great comparison, but I think it's a little too early right now."
It doesn't make it off target, though. Polamalu helps make the Steelers' entire defense go, elevates it to another level. His bruised right shoulder held him and them back early in the season.
Quarterbacks are taught to start with the safety in order to read a defense. It doesn't help much when they're reading Polamalu, who jumps all over before the snap of the ball.
"He confuses the offenses because he's running around in so many positions," said veteran backup safety Mike Logan.
The Falcons will look at Polamalu the way the Steelers watch tape of Michael Vick this week, trying to figure out some way to counter him.
"Troy, he's different," Mora said. "I know you guys get to see him a lot, but, for someone who doesn't get to see him a lot and turns on the film, he is something.
"I have a great regard for defensive players in general. He's at the top of my list right now."