PITTSBURGH (AP) -Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers is one of the best defensive players at his position in the NFL. Nearly every opposing coach says so every week.

That raises this question: Which position is that?

Polamalu, the former Southern Cal star and a first-round draft pick in 2003, tied an NFL record for safeties with three sacks today in Houston. The Steelers’ pass rush got to Texans quarterback David Carr so early and so often -eight times overall – he clearly became skittish by the end of the game.

“He could never get comfortable in there because we gave him so many looks,” Polamalu said.

But then, an afternoon of trying to locate Polamalu amid the Steelers’ ever-changing, ever-shifting 3-4 defense is a job unto itself for most quarterbacks.

On one play, Polamalu abandons the secondary, walks up to the line of scrimmage, then sprints back into the play as an extra cornerback.

On the next play, he lines up deep, then races up to the line and becomes a fifth linebacker.

In a different wrinkle this season, he’ll line up just off the shoulder of a defensive end, effectively making the 3-4 defense into a 4-4.

And, in another twist, he sometimes turns his back on the offense, showing only his No. 43, then turns when the play starts and jets off to a predetermined spot on the field.

No wonder quarterbacks are perplexed this season by this new game of Where’s Polamalu?

“If you don’t know where he is, he’ll get you,” said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, whose team meets the Steelers on Sunday in a rematch of last season’s AFC championship game. “He’s all over the field. He’s really fast. He runs down a lot of plays. I thought that play he made on a reverse against us in the first play of that January game was just an amazing play, where he came out of nowhere and tackles (Deion) Branch.”

That’s exactly the role Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau imagined this season for Polamalu – to make teams think he’s coming out of nowhere.

“He’s a special player,” LeBeau said.

And while some coaches don’t bother to scout preseason games once the season begins, Belichick couldn’t help but notice how Polamalu lined up in man-to-man coverage against Redskins wide receiver James Thrash, then raced in and intercepted Patrick Ramsey’s pass and returned it 34 yards for a touchdown last month.

“You make a mistake around him and he’ll intercept it,” Belichick said. “Just like he did against Washington, he’ll pick it off and run it back for a touchdown or scoop it up and run it back. He’s a big factor in their game plan, there’s no question.”

A game plan, that by design, LeBeau tinkers with every week in an effort to expand Polamalu’s strong safety role.

Polamalu made the Pro Bowl and was second-team All-Pro in his first season as a starter a year ago, when he tied with free safety Chris Hope for the second-most tackles on the team behind All-Pro linebacker James Farrior. He also had a team-high five interceptions.

This season, he already has an interception, three sacks and nine tackles in two games.

The 5-foot-10, 212-pound Polamalu said it doesn’t bother him lining up as a linebacker because he also did the same thing at Southern Cal.

“I play a little bit of everything,” he said. “I’ve been doing that all year.”

Coach Bill Cowher said Polamalu’s ability to move from position to position from play to play gives what was the NFL’s top defense a year ago much of its versatility.

“He’s a guy who loves to play the game, studies a lot,” Cowher said. “He’s got a great feel for the game. He’s a guy you can do a lot of things with.”

Polamalu also is one of the NFL’s most recognizable players because of his long, flowing black hair he wears Samoan-style down his back, rather than tucking it into his helmet.

The hair obscures the name of the back of his uniform, but he says that isn’t a problem because his hair is his identity.

That and the disruptive plays he makes with great regularity.

“There are still a lot of things I need to work on. I’m not there yet, I’m far from there,” Polamalu said. “I just feel blessed because I have been put in this situation with coach LeBeau.”

His coach feels the same way.

“He makes me look really good,” LeBeau said.

AP-ES-09-22-05 1656EDT

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