BEREA - T.J. Ward is getting noticed quite a bit these days, and not just because of a $15,000 hit he put on Cincinnati Bengals receiver Jordan Shipley.
The Browns rookie safety is rapidly developing a reputation as a star in the making. His aggressive style, combined with instincts that are surprising for a rookie, have been the best thing introduced to the defense for a long time.
Still, Ward, who was fined the aforementioned amount for the hit on Shipley, isn't the best safety in the AFC North. Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers is the standard by which all safeties are judged. Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens is also considered among the best in the NFL.
When Ward is asked about players he admired growing up, he has a decidedly west-coast viewpoint. That's understandable because he grew up in San Francisco. He's quick to mention the late Jack Tatum and Ronnie Lott. Merton Hanks is another player he points out.
Polamalu has never been in the conversation, until this week when the Browns and Steelers began preparations for Sunday's game at Heinz Field. It will be a chance for fans to gauge the young prodigy against the master.
The color of the uniform Polamalu wears doesn't keep Ward from showing respect where respect is due.
"Hands down, he's a great safety," Ward said. "He's one of the best in the league right now."
While the Steelers' defense is based on four active, physical linebackers, Polamalu is the glue that holds it all together. When he was absent much of last season with an injury, some of the intimidation factor that makes "The Steel Curtain" so good was missing.
Polumalu is healthy this season and playing as well as ever. That's to say that he seems to be everywhere at all times. No one reads and reacts quicker to run plays, and his coverage instincts are second to none.
"His intelligence on the field and just how he plays all out all the time," Ward said when asked what he admires about Polamalu.
Browns' management defined the secondary as an area that needed a makeover during the offseason. The first pick was cornerback Joe Haden, and Ward was picked high in the second round.
General manager Tom Heckert obviously saw the impact Polamalu and Reed have had, and he wanted to get his version of those two standout players. Ward hasn't disappointed. Through give games he leads the defense in tackles with 38. He's tied with Ray Ventrone and Haden in special teams tackles with five.
With each passing week Ward is becoming a larger defensive force. It's almost like he's being asked to be the Browns' version of Polamalu and Reed.
"I want to be the best player I can be," Ward said. "Hopefully I can be as good or better than those two, but right now I'm trying to do everything I can to help our team win and be a premier player. I want to be one of the best players on the field every time I step out there."
The Steelers didn't need a safety in the draft this year. If there had been a need, coach Mike Tomlin might have pushed hard for Ward.
"The stage isn't too big for him," Tomlin said. "He has a definite playing personality and demeanor. He's consistently physical. I liked that about him on Oregon tape.
"They (the Oregon Ducks) had a guy come out the year before, Patrick Chung, that I was interested in, and I had an opportunity to see T.J. play a little bit. He's playing like I thought he was capable of playing."
No one knows how important a dominant safety can be more than Tomlin.
"Guys like him (Polamalu) are game-changers. They're special people," Tomlin said. "Whether it's Troy. Whether it's Ed Reed or others."