On a pleasant November night in 2007 at Heinz Field, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger threw five touchdown passes in the first half against the Baltimore Ravens but wasn't the star of the Steelers' 38-7 victory. That was linebacker James Harrison. In one of the franchise's all-time great defensive performances, he had nine tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, an interception and 20-yard return, three forced fumbles and a fumble recovery.
Where is that James Harrison when the Steelers need him?
It was a much different Harrison who lined up against the Ravens Sunday night in a 13-10 loss, a much lesser Harrison because of a left knee injury that has haunted him all season. He made no such splash plays, although he did get his first sack in six games. The big problem for the Steelers is he might not be able to make many splash plays the rest of the season.
That's not my observation. That's Harrison's.
"It's not frustrating," he said. "I know what I'm capable of doing. I'm going to run hard and hit hard. But I know how my body is going to react. I'm going to give it my all, but I'm limited by what my body lets me do."
Harrison missed all of the offseason work because of his knee and, when it didn't respond by training camp, had arthroscopic surgery Aug. 15. He missed the first three games of the season. It's often been hard to watch him since he returned to the lineup Oct. 7 against the Philadelphia Eagles.
He hasn't looked much like a five-time Pro Bowler and a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year.
He had a sack against the Tennessee Titans Oct. 11 but didn't get another until he took down Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco late in the game to give the Steelers the ball one final time. He had another sack against the Ravens that was nullified by an off-sides penalty on defensive end Brett Keisel. He has just eight quarterback pressures in seven games, no interceptions, no forced fumbles, no fumble recoveries.
"It's going to be a slow process getting back to where I was," Harrison said. "Each week, I feel a little better. I feel like I'm making some progress here and there. But I know I'm not going to be 100 percent by the end of the season."
Harrison, 34, used to be unblockable. The only way for an offensive lineman to stop him was to hold him and hope to get away without a penalty. That's not so much the case now.
"Just explosion," Harrison said when asked what his game is missing. "I don't get that same explosive first step. [The Ravens game] probably was the best it's been in terms of powering guys back. We'll see what happens in the next game."
Teammates say it's unfair to judge Harrison just on sacks and turnovers. Linebacker Larry Foote said Harrison is getting stronger each week. "You can see it on film. He's starting to push the pile back."
Harrison has been stout against the run. He helped limit the Ravens to 47 rushing yards, including just 40 on 20 carries by Pro Bowler Ray Rice. In the seven games Harrison has played, only one opponent -- the Kansas City Chiefs -- ran for more than 91 yards against the Steelers.
But Harrison is paid big money to make big plays. The Steelers defense isn't the same without him making them. It was terrific Sunday night, holding the Ravens to 200 yards and one legitimate field-goal drive.
But it didn't force a turnover. It has only five interceptions and four fumble recoveries in 10 games.
It's no wonder Steelers coach Mike Tomlin was less than ecstatic this week when asked about his defense against the Ravens. "I would have appreciated a splash play that produces a score or produces a short field for the offense to potentially produce a score."
A healthy Troy Polamalu (calf) would be a big help, but he's going to miss his seventh consecutive game Sunday when the Steelers play the Browns in Cleveland.
That's why the team is hoping -- perhaps against reality -- that Harrison can build on his performance against the Ravens.
It's hard to separate him and linebacker LaMarr Woodley. They are critical to the defense as a tandem. The defense is at its best when they're bashing quarterbacks and forcing turnovers.
"Creating havoc," Foote called it. It hasn't happened much this season because of Harrison's knee and a hamstring problem for Woodley. It didn't happen much last season because of injuries to both. Woodley had a big sack against the Ravens and appears ready for a stretch push.
But Harrison ...
"I know he's going to give us everything he's got," Foote said.
No doubt Harrison is willing. No one on the Steelers trains more maniacally. But will Harrison be able?
The answer to that question will go a long way to determining how successful the team is the rest of the season.mobilehome - roncook
Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.