Mean James Harrison known for sacks

Updated: November 17, 2008, 5:29 PM ET
Associated Press

PITTSBURGH -- When Hall of Famer Mean Joe Greene attends Steelers training camp as a special assistant, some defensive players jokingly tell him he wouldn't be the meanest player on the team today.

Meaner than James Harrison, who plays with such an edge and so much surliness his teammates wonder if he likes himself? C'mon now.

With six games remaining, Harrison is having one of the best seasons by any defensive player in Steelers history -- an accomplishment indeed given this is the franchise of Greene, Jack Lambert, Jack Ham and Mel Blount.

He wasn't drafted out of Kent State, Lambert's alma mater. Yet, in less than two seasons as a starter, Harrison has 20½ sacks, 11 forced fumbles, three recoveries, two interceptions and two safeties -- one for the Steelers, one against them.

"James Harrison continues to make splash play after splash play," Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.

The 6-foot, 242-pound Harrison is as private as he is peevish, someone who enjoys talking to reporters about as much as he does paying fines like his $20,000 assessment last month for criticizing the officiating.

Occasionally, though, the outside linebacker offers a glimpse or two into the inner workings of a player who wasn't drafted, yet made the Pro Bowl and was the Steelers' MVP in his first season as a regular at age 29 last year.

After creating five points with a safety and an interception during the 11-10 victory over San Diego on Sunday, Harrison was asked if he is playing as well as any NFL defensive player.

Harrison rarely assesses his own play, yet he couldn't help but concur.

"I feel like I am, yeah," he said.

Hard to argue with that.

It was much like the answer he gave a few years ago when asked if there was anyone meaner in the league and he said, "No. I don't think anybody is tougher than me."

With 12 sacks, Harrison trails only Joey Porter, who has 13½ for the Dolphins -- fittingly enough because Porter's departure from Pittsburgh after the 2006 season created a lineup opening for Harrison.

Harrison also has four forced fumbles and an interception and, with LaMarr Woodley (9½ sacks), is part of the NFL's most proficient sack duo.

"You've got to pick your poison with those two," defensive end Aaron Smith said. "The pressure they bring can be unbelievable."

When Harrison felt Texans quarterback Matt Schaub was tippy-toeing too much in the pocket during the Sept. 7 season opener, Harrison yelled at him -- he won't reveal what he said -- to basically play like a man.

"When he's getting after the quarterback, it's very fun," defensive end Brett Keisel said.

And that Browns fan who disrupted a game by running onto the field in 2005? There may still be a divot in the Browns Stadium turf where Harrison spiked him.

No wonder that, after Sports Illustrated labeled Porter as the NFL's meanest player in 2006, teammates laughed he wasn't the meanest player in his own locker room.

Even before Harrison became a starter, the Steelers had the foresight to sign him to a multiyear deal that extends through 2009, As a result, the $1.8 million Harrison is making this season is only about one-third that of Porter's $5.2 million in Miami.

Not surprisingly for a player who arrived in 2002 with a more-than-visible attitude, the Steelers had to calm down Harrison and, in the game's parlance, coach him up before they could channel that surliness and aggressiveness into production.

The Steelers cut him twice, partly because he was initially difficult to coach, and he was picked up by Baltimore, only to be cut again from -- imagine this -- NFL Europe. (Also imagine this: Harrison playing alongside the equally intense Ray Lewis in Baltimore.)

Harrison returned to the Steelers only when linebacker Clark Haggans was injured days before the start of camp in 2004, but impressed them with his toughness by playing an exhibition game with a broken thumb. The first time he got on the field in a game that counted, he had a sack.

His versatility helped him stay around. He played special teams, remaining there after becoming a starter. Harrison volunteered to be the emergency long snapper, something he might have regretted after his errant snap resulted in a safety and set up the decisive points during the Giants' 21-14 win on Oct. 26.

After finally becoming comfortable with the nuances and attention to detail needed to play in the NFL, Harrison has developed into one of the shrewdest pickups in team history. He is comparable to teammate Willie Parker and former safety Donnie Shell, two other non-drafted players who made the Pro Bowl.

Harrison's explanation of why the Steelers' defense is first against the run, first against the pass, and first overall is simplistic but telling.

"We play solid defense here. We try to stop the run and make them one-dimensional so they have to pass," he said.

Sort of like how Harrison forced the Steelers to play him: He made it impossible for them to pass him up.


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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