Harris: Harrison finds it's hard to be exceptional

Tuesday, January 12, 2010
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The best defensive player in the NFL last season wasn't even the best defensive player on his team this year.

LaMarr Woodley replaced James Harrison as the Steelers' top defender in 2009. Woodley led the Steelers with 13 1/2 sacks and became the disruptive force that Harrison had been the previous two seasons.

Harrison, though, made the Pro Bowl for the third consecutive season based on his solid reputation around the league as a playmaker.

He just didn't make as many plays as he normally does.

In retrospect, it was nearly impossible for Harrison to duplicate his scintillating effort from 2008, when he was named defensive player of the year, recorded a franchise-record 16 sacks and scored on a 100-yard interception return in Super Bowl XLIII.

Already the object of double- and triple-team blocking schemes designed to inhibit his path to the quarterback, Harrison, for the first time in his pro career, became a marked man in 2009.

As difficult as it was trying to match or even surpass his record-setting sack total, Harrison's performance was measured against the new contract he signed in the offseason.

Fair or not, Harrison was expected to be exceptional all over again. It was a new concept for him.

Since entering the league, Harrison was always the underdog. He was the guy who didn't get drafted, who was cut four times -- three times by the Steelers -- and had a chip on his shoulder as big as the Hot Metal Bridge.

Harrison has always played angry -- and with an edge.

What happened to Harrison in the first season of his six-year, $51.175 million contract -- the most money paid to a defensive player in team history, and the biggest deal ever awarded to a Steelers player older than 30 -- is anyone's guess.

Harrison's role changed somewhat, as he became more responsible for dropping into pass coverage. That resulted in fewer opportunities for him to pass rush.

He finished with 10 sacks, which is quite good until you consider that is six fewer sacks than last season.

Then there's the injury factor. Harrison started the final two games of the season despite suffering a bruised biceps and strained tendon in his left arm.

Give Harrison the benefit of the doubt in those two games (eight tackles, one forced fumble).

Playing with that type of painful injury no doubt hampered him from gaining leverage against much taller offensive linemen.

Still, Harrison failed to record a sack in his final six games.

He had 79 tackles -- down from 98 in 2008 and 101 last season -- five forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.

Very good numbers, but not sensational. And this was a year when Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was desperate for his defense to make splash plays.

Splash plays are Harrison's specialty.

Last season against Baltimore, Harrison recorded 10 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble in a home win. In a 2007 win over the Ravens, Harrison had 9 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, one interception and a fumble recovery.

Following Harrison's breakout campaign, opponents spent last offseason devising ways to neutralize him. Teams ran the ball more at Harrison -- the best way to slow down a great pass rusher -- and they threw more to running backs and tight ends, testing his ability to keep pace in the intermediate passing game.

Harrison also faced an assortment of blocking schemes -- some legal, some not (holding anyone?) designed to keep him off-balance.

The result was that Harrison's splash plays were reduced.

This offseason is important for Harrison, who turns 32 in May.

Outside linebacker Joey Porter (whom Harrison replaced) and guard Alan Faneca weren't re-signed, in part, because the Steelers weren't willing to pay what those veterans believed they were worth.

Harrison, who didn't become a starter until late in his career, doesn't carry the mileage of most linebackers his age. However, he plays a physical style of defense that can exact a physical toll.

The Steelers made an exception when they re-signed Harrison, who needs to be exceptional again in 2010.