TAMPA - They used to be known as the last line of defense.
Now, safeties such as Troy Polamalu and Adrian Wilson are much more. They are ball hawks, pass rushers and run-stoppers.
In the NFL, safeties are in, and these two are big reasons why.
Polamalu and Wilson are soft-spoken, humble types who credit other elite safeties for raising the position’s profile. But make no mistake: They are two defenders whose versatility has helped redefine the position.
The Pittsburgh safety is a whirling dervish; the Cardinals probably have to account for the presence of Polamalu – and his high-flying hair -- all over the field more than any other player.
Polamalu, who was born in Santa Ana, Calif. and attended high school in Oregon, is of Samoan descent. He embraces the role of serving as a model for young people from Samoan and Polynesian backgrounds.
“I think every athlete realizes that, whether it’s their family, their faith or their culture, when they step onto the field, they represent something,” Polamalu said.
“There are not many big Samoan players who have a shot of really making the Super Bowl and getting that type of prestige. It’s really an honor.”
Arizona fans probably first noticed him at USC, where he played from 1999-2002.
Nationally, fans know him mostly by the long, flowing hair that he says has become “like an extra appendage.”
“Sometimes I wish I could go without it,” said Polamalu, who added that it’s a “dead give-away” for his identity when he’s out in public.
But that’s just it; it’s part of his identity.
Opponents know him by his unpredictable whereabouts on the field.
Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt, who faced him in practice for years when he was offensive coordinator for the Steelers, said, “I have been frustrated with Troy many, many times going against him. He is all over the field.
“We have to be very disciplined about knowing where Troy is.
“The biggest thing with Troy is underestimating his ability to make a play on the ball from the line of scrimmage. … He is a big part of why that defense is so potent.”
In Arizona, Wilson has been a quasi-linebacker for years, rushing the passer and stuffing the run.
He has had an often brilliant career, marred only by penalties (though this really hasn’t been a problem this season).
He has 18.5 sacks and 18 interceptions for his career, meaning he should end up as one of the few players ever to go 20-20 for their careers.
More than this, Wilson represents the resilience of the Cardinals and their fans.
He’s the “senior Cardinal” having been with them since 2001. He stuck with them through the lean years, in part because he didn’t think the franchise was hopeless and in part so his family could stay rooted.
And now he’s being rewarded.
“I have a wife and two kids. You never want to move your family around. You want to be as stable as possible,” Wilson said.
“For me, I think it’s very important and important for my kids, more than anything, to have those grounded roots and not have to move around everywhere. The dedication you have to one place… means a lot.”
In addition, “pride and stubbornness” kept him going over the years.
“It was a just a great sense of pride and not leaving a job undone, just wanting to stick it out and try to get things turned around,” he said. “It’s a hard process, but once it’s completed, it makes you feel a lot better.”
Because the Cardinals had been losers through most of his career, Wilson didn’t get much national notice, despite his great stats.
“Now, because of the stage of the Super Bowl… and throughout the playoffs, people are able to see the kind of player he is,” Cards defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast said.
Wilson’s biggest improvement this season has been taking on a leadership role, according to coach Ken Whisenhunt.
In particular, he’s worked with Antrel Rolle, who is making the transition from cornerback to safety, and with rookie cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.
“He took that mantle of leadership and ran with it,” Whisenhunt said. “I’ve seen him grow in that role tremendously this year.”
As for the position’s higher profile, Wilson cites Polamalu more than any other player.
“I really idolize the way he plays on the field. I think he stands out more than any of the other safeties who are playing.”
He also points to Ed Reed of Baltimore, who – like Polamalu – consistently comes up with game-breaking interceptions.
“When you have guys like that, it helps the whole league,” Wilson said. “Just to have my name mentioned with those guys is a huge compliment.”
For his part, Polamalu credits Reed, Wilson, Bob Sanders of Indianapolis and Rodney Harrison of New England for raising the stature of the position.
In fact, he breaks down videotape of those players after every season and tries to incorporate their best tendencies into his own game.
“Adrian Wilson, the way he blitzes, the way he plays run support… his athleticism is pretty amazing,” Polamalu said.
Safeties such as Ronnie Lott of San Francisco have made a big splash in the past, Polamalu said, but the position only started to get real notice recently when Reed “started making all those big plays a few years ago.”
Now, with offenses becoming more sophisticated and explosive, “Safeties have become a big trend,” he said.
On Sunday, this trend, and the skills of two of the best, will be on display on the game’s biggest stage.