When the Pittsburgh Steelers prepare for their AFC Championship game against the Baltimore Ravens, they'll try to attack perceived weak spots in the Baltimore defense, but they'll always keep one thing in mind: Ed Reed is out there.
Reed, a seven-year pro, is the best safety who has ever played. He's a game-changing player with a knack for big plays. If he's not intercepting a pass and returning it for a touchdown, he's stripping opponents of the football, then returning the fumble for a score.
"I won't go to his side of the field," says one AFC offensive coordinator. "I know what he can do and I've seen it too many times. I'm not that stupid that I'm going to continue to challenge him. It just doesn't make sense."
No, it doesn't.
Reed's nine interceptions led the league, and matched his career high for a single season. His 16 pass deflections also were a career best. From a Week 12 win against the Eagles through a wild-card victory over Miami, Reed picked off two passes in a single game five times. If there was a play to be made, Reed made it.
Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs calls Reed "the greatest safety of all-time," while receiver Mark Clayton thinks Reed was the league's MVP.
"He deserves every bit of praise that comes his way," Clayton says.
Reed belong among a elite group of Hall of Fame safeties such as Larry Wilson, Willie Wood, Ken Houston, Mel Renfro, Emlen Tunnell and Dick Anderson and modern standouts like Ronnie Lott and Kenny Easley. And, like those greats, there is no preening, no pointing and no dancing that go with Reed's game.
Instead, he combines outstanding physical ability with great preparation. He always knows an opponent's tendencies. He studies hours of film each week, which gives him a mental edge to go with his talent.
Former safety Dave Duerson won Super Bowls when he played with the Bears and Giants in the 1980s and in 1990. Coaches like Mike Ditka, Buddy Ryan and Bill Parcells demanded tough, physical play and expected meticulous preparation. Duerson says Reed's preparation is what sets him apart.
"Without any doubt, he's the best safety in today's game," Duerson says. "Ed is always in position to make a play, because he has a knack for studying the opponent, and recognizing the adjustments they will make depending on down and distance.
"Where Ed is unique is in what he does, after he gets his hands on the ball. He always goes for the strip as soon as he makes contact. This may allow a runner to get a little bit of extra yardage, but he won't get away. Ed is a very sure tackler."
Many compare Reed to Lott because the 49ers legend was another game-changing safety, but the two have different styles. Lott was known as a ferocious hitter who used his 6-foot, 205-pound frame punish ball carriers with a cracking hits.
Reed doesn't shy away from contact, but his strength is playing the ball in the air. He has 43 career interceptions in just seven seasons and has had only one season with fewer than five picks. At that rate, he'll have a shot at Paul Krause's career interception record of 81.
He's a threat to snag any pass lofted his way, which is usually in the minds of opposing quarterbacks. As a result, Reed's one of those players whose stats sometimes don't reflect his impact because teams stay away from him.
Take it from one of the game's offensive icons, 49ers great Jerry Rice - no one wants to head in Reed's direction.
"First of all, he's going to stop the receiver from catching the ball," Rice says. "But if he has any opportunity to make a play on the ball and catch it, he will. He has great hands."
In many ways, Reed's play is similar to Wood's, who starred for Vince Lombardi's Packers in the 1960's, and Dick Anderson, who did the same for Don Shula's Dolphins in the 1970's.
Both were outstanding athletes who excelled because they understood their opponents tendencies. Wood used his instincts and experience to bait opposing quarterbacks into mistakes. Anderson's speed also gave him an edge.
All of great safeties have an understanding of timing. They know how to set up a receiver or a quarterback by allowing a short catch or two early and then taking it away with a big pick later in the game.
Reed has that ability, and showcases it throughout the season. As the best safety in NFL history, his presence gives the Ravens a distinct advantage in every game.
- Steve Silverman, NBCSports.com contributor