Marvin Lewis knows a thing or two about defense.
Lewis was the linebackers coach of the great 1995 Steelers squad that won the AFC title. Five years later, he was guiding one of the best defenses of all-time in the 2000 Ravens as defensive coordinator of their Super Bowl XXXV team. His Bengals defenses have perennially been once of the stronger units in the NFL over the past decade.
The 12-year Bengals coach worked with former Baltimore All-Pro safety Ed Reed on the Ravens staff in 2001 and '02, and ever since then has played against Reed and former Steelers All-Pro safety at least twice each year for over the past decade. In short, Lewis is as credible as anyone out there in regards to giving their two cents about defense in pro football, and what made the newly retired Polamalu and Reed all-time greats at their position.
Speaking with The Sporting News shortly after Polamalu announced his retirement Friday, Lewis said that both players' superior intelligence, athletic ability and knack for making big plays at critical times is what set them apart from the pack.
"There aren't two better players you, as a coach, would want young safeties to look up to," Lewis said in the interview. these guys were two cerebral players. "They’re two guys who took the instruction they get from the coaches and put it into play on the field. They were guys who not only knew it, but could apply it."
Lewis first noticed Polamalu back in 2003, when Lewis was at USC's Pro Day scouting his eventual quarterback and Polamalu's college roommate, Carson Palmer. With Polamalu anchoring the defense and Palmer on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy, USC went 10-2 and dominated Iowa in the Orange Bowl.
"Just the speed, the athleticism, the agility, the short-area change of direction, the burst, his play on the ball, it was all there," Lewis said.
Polamalu showed all those attributes during his games against the Bengals. He picked off Palmer for his first career interception return for a touchdown to clinch a Steelers victory over Cincinnati on Oct. 3, 2004. Six years later, Polamalu victimized Palmer again, taking another interception back 45 yards in another Pittsburgh victory over their AFC North foe. That season, Polamalu would win the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award while helping spearhead Pittsburgh's run to Super Bowl XLV.
When discussing Polamalu and Reed's Hall-of-Fame credentials, Lewis said that he puts both players on the same level as Rod Woodson and Ronnie Lott, both Hall-of-Fame safeties that were key anchors on Super Bowl defenses. Woodson, who played cornerback while also being a stellar kick returner for the Steelers from1987-96, seamlessly switched to safety during the later stages of his career. Four of Woodson's 11 Pro Bowl selections came after he switched to safety and, in 2002 at the age of 37, was named an All-Pro for the sixth and final time.
Like Polamalu, Lott was a USC product who helped the 49ers win a Super Bowl his rookie season. Lott would anchor San Francisco's defense to four Super Bowls in the 1980s, showcasing the toughness and physical traits that Polamalu would later show.
While not built like Lott or Polamalu, Reed used his superior speed, intelligence and incredible athleticism to win the NFL's Defensive Player of the year award in 2004. A nine-time Pro Bowler, five time All-Pro and Super Bowl champion in 2012, Reed returned two interceptions over 100 yards for touchdowns during his 13-year-career, an NFL record.
"I think in my time, they have to be held up there with the Ronnie Lotts of the world," Lewis said. "All the things they did, that's what Ronnie Lott did. He made plays everywhere on the field and impacted his team winning football games.
"They were exceptional at everything. What one could do, the other could do, too."