PITTSBURGH – Troy Polamalu might as well be wearing a Superman cape as far as Rex Ryan is concerned.
Now, if only the New York Jets coach could find some kryptonite to neutralize the Pittsburgh Steelers' fly to-the-ball star safety when the teams meet Sunday at Heinz Field for the AFC title.
"There's some things he does that are unbelievable, like the Superman dives that he does. I don't know how you're supposed to be ready," Ryan said. "His timing and playmaking ability is almost second to none."
And to think, the great Polamalu isn't even 100 percent healthy. He sat out practices Wednesday and Thursday this week, as has become the norm, because of a right Achilles' tendon injury.
But fear not, Pittsburgh. No. 43 returned to practice Friday, and plans to be on the frozen Heinz Field turf Sunday, when the Steelers (13-4) meet the Jets (13-5).
Which should come as no surprise, of course. After all, with a Super Bowl trip on the line, this is Troy's time to shine.
"The thing about Troy is, it's not like he needs much practice," safety Ryan Mundy said, "because you know he's going to show up when the lights come up on Sunday."
Mundy should know. He fills in when Polamalu isn't taking those midweek snaps.
And with all due respect to Mundy, the Steelers clearly miss Polamalu, in practice or games. He missed the contest vs. the Jets last month, in fact, and New York escaped with a 22-17 win. With Polamalu sidelined, the Jets ran for 106 yards on the league's stingiest run defense. And quarterback Mark Sanchez played mostly error-free football, completing 19 of 29 passes for 170 yards.
Granted, no Steeler has used Polamalu's absence in that game as an excuse. At the same, they know this week will be a different story.
"Troy brings this defense from a 'C' defense to an 'A' defense," linebacker James Harrison said. "He's someone that you have to account for in the secondary."
This season's extensive highlight reel includes a lunging, one-armed swing on Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco that forced a fumble near midfield with less than 4 minutes left and the Steelers trailing by four. That set up the winning score in a 13-10 victory.
In Week 17, after missing two games, he intercepted Cleveland's Colt McCoy on the second play from scrimmage. Pittsburgh scored on the next play in a 41-9 win that secured the No. 2 seed.
Freakish athleticism — and flowing hair — aside, Polamalu also excels because of his off-field preparation. He's always taking notes in team meetings as if he's a rookie. And he mentally runs through plays during practices when he's not dressed, Mundy said.
"A lot of people think he's just out there taking chances or just guessing, but he actually knows what he's doing," Mundy said. "It's more of a calculated educated guess, as opposed to a guy just running around, going crazy."
But don't ask Polamalu about the perception the Steelers don't fare well without him. It's a team game to him. And, remember, there's always respected coordinator Dick LeBeau to thank, as well.
"I have no reason to explain (it)," Polamalu said. "But I know that no matter who's out there, coach LeBeau always calls a good game. And we always have an opportunity to win games."
For that to happen Sunday, the Steelers need to turn up the pressure on Sanchez, forcing the Jets into third-and-longs. That, in turn, means limiting tailbacks LaDainian Tomlinson and Shonn Greene on first and second downs, which, of course, is the Steelers' specialty.
"We've always worried about stopping the run first here," Polamalu said.
Polamalu isn't the only injured member of the secondary, though. Starting cornerback Bryant McFadden practiced Friday for the first time after suffering an abdominal injury last week vs. Baltimore. Nickel back William Gay could start if McFadden can't go.
As for Polamalu, coach Mike Tomlin needed just four words Friday to address his status.
"Troy's going to play," he said.
Superman is back.