Opponents' fear of Harrison helps Steelers

Monday, February 1, 2010

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - James Harrison generally has as much use for excuses as he does quarterback protection rules.

But the Steelers' no-nonsense outside linebacker said there are reasons why his sack total dipped from a team-record 16 in 2008 to 10 last season.

"I started dropping a little more in coverage, would show blitz, and when I normally go, I didn't go," said Harrison, who played in his third consecutive Pro Bowl Sunday night. "They'd do things on my side and end up leaving (LaMarr Woodley) open. And 'Wood' came through for us at the end of the season."

The question now is whether Harrison, who didn't have a sack in the Steelers' final six games last season, will be as dominant as he was in 2008. That's when Harrison turned in arguably the finest season ever by a Steelers linebacker, punctuated by an interception returned 100 yards for a touchdown in Super Bowl XLIII.

Last season, in an effort to counter teams keying on him, the Steelers didn't always blitz Harrison. But the player who was cut four times before finally sticking in the NFL no longer enjoys the cloak that once came with being an undrafted free agent.

"They're going to be looking for him," Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau said of Harrison, "and he's one of the reasons that LaMarr is successful on the other side."

Late bloomer
Here is a look at James Harrison's stats since he cracked the starting lineup at age 29:
Year G Tackles Sacks Forced Fumbles Fumble Recoveries INT
2007 16 80 8.5 6 1 1
2008 15 100 16 7 0 1
2009 16 74 10 5 2 0
Woodley played in his first Pro Bowl last night, and his ascent could take some of the focus off Harrison.

What is certain is that if Harrison doesn't return to the otherworldly level he played at two seasons ago, it won't be because of a lack of effort.

As relentless as the 6-foot, 242-pounder is on the field, Harrison is borderline maniacal when it comes to training.

Last year, Harrison signed a six-year, $51.175 million contract that made him the highest-paid defensive player in franchise history. And it only made him more driven, according to the performance trainer who has worked with Harrison since long before he became a star for the Steelers.

"Ever since day one, James' work ethic is second to none, and he's not a guy that needs to be showy about it," said Steve Saunders, who owns Power Train Sports Institute. "James is probably awful for referrals because he doesn't talk about what he does."

Harrison is frequently not much for talking at all - as one media member at the Pro Bowl found out last week.

Asked to answer a question into a cell phone for a new media sports website, Harrison fixed his trademark flinty stare on the inquisitor.

He was assured that just 30 seconds of his time was needed. Harrison said he would give 20.

That kind of edge has long been as much a part of his persona as on-field intimidation, and it can be argued that Harrison did his share of the latter in 2009.

Despite notching only two sacks in the second half of the '09 season, Harrison led the Steelers in quarterback pressures with 20.

"I don't measure my impact in sacks," Harrison said. "A pressure can be better than a sack depending on what happens with that pressure, if he throws a ball that's off and one of the (defensive backs) or linebackers picks it off."

The perception that Harrison gets held more than his fair share on the way to the quarterback and the nagging injuries he played through last season may have contributed to the drop in sacks.

But Harrison said he is simply focusing on what he can do to get better.

As for the Steelers, Harrison said he is glad their nucleus will be kept together. That affirms his belief that the Steelers are closer to the team that won a Super Bowl in 2008 than the squad that underachieved in 2009.

Said Harrison: "I don't see too many things that need replaced or fixed."