Pro Bowl LB earns his nickname of Steelman
Steelers Training Camp / Day 6 Saint Vincent College, Latrobe
Saturday, August 02, 2008
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Matt Freed/Post-GazetteSteelers MVP James HarrisonThe Steelers are going to kill their most valuable player if they don't watch it.
Their morning special teams practices at Saint Vincent College do not include most veterans. That is, unless you were the team MVP last season and a starting linebacker in the Pro Bowl.
James Harrison, an overnight sensation last fall at age 29, toiled through another special teams practice yesterday morning while many of his fellow starters slept in. It's the price you apparently pay when you do it so well -- Harrison first made his mark covering punts and kicks and he's still doing it.
Steelman, they should call him. He does not complain about the extra practices and playing on special teams.
"Hey, that's part of the game. Life ain't fair," Harrison said.
But he never comes off the field on defense, and he is 30 years old now. Perhaps the team's leading pass rusher from last season with 8 1/2 sacks might perform at even a higher level if he did not have to cover a kickoff before he lines up on defense.
"It's obvious it's going to take away," said Harrison, dripping with sweat after another morning special teams workout. "You're playing more downs. You're going out on a 70-yard sprint and then you're going straight to defense, so it takes a little wind out of you.
"We just have to have the guys we have at the backup position come in as needed and give us a break."
Or, maybe those backup guys could be the ones running under the kickoffs.
"Hopefully, we can get him off the field," linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "We'll see."
The Steelers even want more from Harrison this season on defense. They will give him the Joey Porter treatment, where he's permitted to freelance more and line up at different places on the field.
"Actually," Harrison said, "it's going to be similar to [what Porter did], and there's another package that's totally different where I could be lined up anywhere -- from almost at a corner position all the way to inside linebacker and rush or drop, whatever it may be.
"It seems like they're going to let our linebackers run a little more, rush a little more than last year, just looking at the defense going in right now."
That might help boost their sagging sack stats, which hit a lowly 36 last season, 11 fewer than two seasons earlier. The addition of second-year man LaMarr Woodley on the left outside should provide a boost and make offenses worry about the outside rush from both ends.
"I like LaMarr's pass rush," Harrison said. "He has a good speed rush and has a lot of strength and weight to go around the corner.
"He complements me, and I complement him. It's going to get to a point where, just by me and him rushing, offenses may have to keep two backs in just to keep us off the edges, and that helps out our covering DBs and inside linebackers. Everything rolls downhill."
They could use that because as the pressure eased on opposing quarterbacks, they also threw fewer interceptions -- just 11, down from 20 in 2006. Harrison did everything to hold up his end in his first season as a full-time starter. He had one of the best individual defensive games turned in by a Steelers player Nov. 5 against Baltimore at Heinz Field when he led the team with nine tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, forced three fumbles, recovered one and intercepted a pass and returned it 20 yards.
He and his coach predicted bigger and better things in 2008 now that he has put in his first season as a starter. "He'll be more consistent," Butler said. "He'll be a lot better."
"I'm striving to get that perfect gear, that perfect game, the perfect season," Harrison said. "I just want to do better than I did last year."
Taking him off special teams might help.
"That's where I got my start," said Harrison. "If they need me there, I'm going to go out and play."
Ed Bouchette can be reached at email@example.com.
First published on August 2, 2008 at 12:00 am