By ALAN ROBINSON
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH -- Troy Polamalu's playmaking style for the Pittsburgh Steelers is one part linebacker, one part cornerback and a lot of inventive nonconformity that makes him one of the NFL's most talented defensive players.
Or a safety much like Bob Sanders, whose Indianapolis Colts face a pivotal game Sunday in Pittsburgh in which both teams may need a big play from their game-altering defensive back to win.
The kind of plays that showed up regularly on the video tape coaches Mike Tomlin of Pittsburgh and Tony Dungy of Indianapolis reviewed going into this important AFC game.
"I think they're similar in that when you turn the tape on, they're arguably the fastest people on the field," Tomlin said. "They really play with a great deal of energy and enthusiasm and I think the people they play with feed off that."
Wide receiver Hines Ward said the Steelers (6-2) certainly do when Polamalu levels a running back at the line of scrimmage or drops into deep coverage to break up a pass.
"Right before the game I'm always telling him, 'We need at least two or three big plays from you to really spark the team,"' Ward said. "He's a quiet leader. He's not a vocal guy on the team, but he's a great student of the game. He's constantly over there talking with the receivers, 'What is this guy trying to do if he's doing this?' He's constantly trying to get better."
Polamalu also owns one of the NFL's most distinctive personalities, and not only because his long hair cascades below his shoulders on game days. A Pro Bowl player the last four seasons, he lacks the ego that now seems to be a prerequisite for NFL stars and can rarely be talked into discussing his own play.
Yet when the NFL began regularly fining Steelers players, including Ward, for seemingly harmless infractions, Polamalu spoke up with a Jack Lambert-like zeal and accused the league of softening the game.
"It's like when he lets his hair down, it's a transformation to the Tasmanian Devil," Ward said. "But when you take the helmet off, he's got his hair pulled back and he's just a soft-spoken, well-rounded guy. He's very religious."
The AFC has a number of excellent safeties, Ed Reed of Baltimore among them, and two of the best will be on the same field Sunday.
If the Colts didn't realize how much Sanders meant to them -- he was the NFL defensive player of the year last season -- they did when he missed five consecutive games with knee and ankle injuries.
Sanders, a two-time Pro Bowl player, returned to make eight tackles during an 18-15 win over New England on Sunday night, helping the Colts (4-4) get back to .500 and end a two-game losing streak.
"He can chase a lot of things down," Dungy said of Sanders. "But some of the problems we had earlier in the season were due to more than just him being out of the lineup."
Sanders, who grew up two hours away from Pittsburgh in Erie, Pa., and the Steelers haven't met up since Pittsburgh's 21-18 upset over the top-seeded Colts in Indianapolis in January 2006 that sent the Steelers to the AFC championship game.
Sanders has another link to Pittsburgh. The Colts chose him with the 2004 second-round draft pick acquired when Pittsburgh moved up to take cornerback Ricardo Colclough, who is currently out of the league.
Comparing the two, the 5-foot-8, 206-pound Sanders is fundamentally sounder and makes more spectacular hits than Polamalu, but the 5-10, 207-pound Polamalu is more reckless -- he recently sustained his seventh career concussion -- and might have better hands.
"It's going to be a huge challenge going against them," Sanders said. "This is a great team that we are coming to play -- they are physical. Right now, I think, is about getting back and practicing and getting this thing rolling and trying to make some plays."
The kind of plays Polamalu often makes for Pittsburgh. He has three interceptions and 36 tackles in eight games although, like Sanders, statistics don't always reflect his contribution.
"He is a very important part of what we do because he has what you can't coach," Tomlin said. "He has great instincts. He's a splash playmaker. We need his kind of effort."