Steelers' Harrison tries on big shoes

The coach who replaces Joe Paterno, the second man to walk on the moon, Alexander Graham Bell's assistant.

It is not easy to follow a legend in any profession. Joey Porter might not qualify as a legend, but he made the Pro Bowl three times and rose to fourth on the Steelers' career list with 60 sacks. He was the acknowledged leader of the Steelers' defense.

When the Steelers released Porter and his $5 million salary in March, it caused an upheaval among his teammates.

Into the breach steps James Harrison, a former undrafted rookie who was cut by the Steelers, twice, then cut by Baltimore, then re-signed by the Steelers as an afterthought one week before training camp because Clark Haggans had a broken hand.

Not only will he start at right outside linebacker, where Joey Porter and Greg Lloyd played before him, Harrison expects to surpass the productivity of either of them in one season.

"My personal goal, I want to try to get at least 12 sacks," Harrison said yesterday.

  • Game: Steelers (3-1) at Carolina Panthers (1-2) in Game 5 of the preseason, closing out exhibition play.
  • When: 8 p.m. .
  • Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
  • TV: KDKA/FSN Pittsburgh.

That would put him in a small group of Steelers who have reached that many -- Mike Merriweather, Kevin Greene, Keith Willis, Jason Gildon and Chad Brown. The team record is 15. Porter's best was 10 1/2, twice.

Harrison does not care if people scoff at his goal, or if he's scrutinized more because of the player he replaced.

"That's just it, I don't care what other people say. I'm not worried about what other people say. I'm worried about what I do and helping my teammates out and make sure I'm not letting my teammates or coaches down. As far as what everybody else says, it doesn't matter."

Harrison is not your typical-looking pass-rushing linebacker. He stands 6 feet and weighs 242.

"He's short, he's not small," coach Mike Tomlin emphasized. "He has natural leverage and he's a powerful guy -- very difficult for a lot of left tackles to block from that standpoint because he can get underneath them.

"He has the power to rip up and under and come through. I don't think his height works at a disadvantage for him in that regard, because of how he's built and how strong he is. He's a difficult guy to block, ask Marvel [Smith]. He and Marvel had some battles here this offseason."

Tomlin, coordinator Dick LeBeau and the rest of the staff have no qualms putting Harrison where Porter once roamed. They made their first pick in the draft an outside linebacker and put him behind Harrison, but a groin injury has prevented Lawrence Timmons from getting on the field much since draft day.

Harrison will start at right outside linebacker, the only change on a defense that has been among the NFL's best in recent seasons. It is the third lineup change on defense since the Steelers won Super Bowl XL. Last year, Ryan Clark replaced Chris Hope at free safety, and Brett Keisel replaced Kimo von Oelhoffen at right end.

Keisel never started a game until he was elevated last season, four years after he was drafted in the seventh round. He did so well that they are expanding his role this season so he can line up at different spots.

Harrison, 29, has been their top backup on the outside the past three seasons, started eight games because of injuries in that span and been productive doing so.

"I think he can replace Joey," said cornerback Deshea Townsend, who played behind Porter and now Harrison. "It's going to be hard to replace him. When he did have a chance, you never saw a letdown in our defense. You always saw him go out there and play just as well as everybody in front of him. He's just another guy waiting his turn to play."

"He brings the same athletic ability Joey had and he has the attitude," said end Aaron Smith. "James will come in and play down in and down out."

Harrison uses his speed and quickness to get around tackles and his compact frame as leverage if he needs to explode in on them. He learned some pass rushes from Porter and some from Kevin Greene when he spent a summer at training camp a few years ago helping coach.

"Speed bull, that's what he taught us," Harrison said.

It's all in the technique, but it's a speed rush combined with a bull rush. Porter, Harrison said, had "that nice hip flip. He flips his hips real fast, like dancing."

However he does it, the Steelers will turn to Harrison to get it done. Twelve sacks would more than make them forget Joey Porter.

Ed Bouchette can be reached at . First Published August 29, 2007 3:45 AM


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