Last season, linebacker James Harrison was a curious and wrong-headed choice by the Steelers as their MVP. He had a big year and made the Pro Bowl, but he wasn't the MVP. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger was. But this season? The crime will be if Harrison isn't NFL Defensive Player of the Year. No one has been more dominant. No one has been more of a game-changer.
"A beast," teammate Larry Foote called Harrison.
Even that doesn't do the man justice.
It's not so much Harrison's 12 sacks, second-most in the NFL behind old pal Joey Porter's 13 1/2 in Miami, or his team-high 28 quarterback hurries or his four forced fumbles or the "splash play after splash play" -- coach Mike Tomlin's words -- that he continues to make, game after game. It's that he does it as the most marked man on the field.
James HarrisonThe 2008 numbersCategory
We're talking double- and triple-team blocking.
We're also talking holding by the opponents on a lot of pass plays.
It's almost enough to make you think Harrison is unblockable one-on-one, at least legally.
"No one is unblockable," Harrison said, flatly. "There were plenty of plays [Sunday] where I was blocked."
You could have fooled me.
Probably could have fooled San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers, too.
Harrison definitely wasn't blocked on one of the most significant plays in the Steelers' 11-10 victory. He took advantage of a rare, incredible mismatch with tight end Brandon Manumaleuna on a third-and-9 play from the Chargers' 3 early in the second quarter. It was cruel and inhumane punishment for the San Diego coaches to ask Manumaleuna to block Harrison without help. Harrison blew by him to the outside and crushed Rivers, forcing a fumble that resulted in a safety for the Steelers.
Maybe that play wasn't quite as huge as the one Harrison made to save the Steelers' fannies in a game Sept. 29 against the Baltimore Ravens when he sacked quarterback Joe Flacco and forced a fumble that teammate LaMarr Woodley returned for a touchdown. But it was awfully important in a one-point game. So was Harrison's interception of a horribly thrown Rivers pass from the Steelers' 17 late in the second quarter.
Splash play after splash play ...
All of this doesn't happen by accident.
"His work ethic is second to none," Tomlin said of Harrison.
"You should see him in the weight room," Foote said. "Pound for pound, he has to be the strongest guy on the team. You put that together with his speed and his mind-set and you've got an unbelievable player making spectacular plays."
Smallish size generally works against NFL players, but it works for Harrison. At 6 feet with a low center of gravity and explosive quickness, he's often impossible for big offensive tackles to handle. "He can turn the corner and he has enough power to run through and lean through contact," Tomlin said.
That's exactly how it happened when Harrison ate Manumaleuna's lunch, dinner and bedtime snack.
It's no wonder Harrison's teammates line up to push him for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. They love the season that linebacker James Farrior is having and they'll tell you defensive end Aaron Smith might be their most indispensable player. But Harrison's season is off the charts. In addition to sacking the quarterback, forcing fumbles and making interceptions, he has found the time to have 10 special teams tackles, second only to Anthony Madison (15) on the Steelers.
"It's sick what he does out there," Smith said.
"He and Joey [Porter] are battling it out, but he has to be the [defensive] MVP of the league," Foote said.
Harrison said he is "flattered" by the attention. That's a mouthful from him. When you perform the way he does, you don't have to say much about your game. It speaks for itself.
This is how consistent Harrison has been: He has had sacks in seven of the Steelers' 10 games. With six regular-season games left, he should easily shatter Mike Merriweather's team sacks record (15 in 1987) and maybe even move into the same general neighborhood as NFL sacks record holder Michael Strahan (22 1/2 in 2001).
That is one very exclusive neighborhood.
Not that Harrison acts haughty.
"I'm not going to lobby for [Defensive Player of the Year]," he said. "If it's meant to be, it's meant to be."
Harrison has something more important on his mind at the moment -- the Cincinnati Bengals, the opponent Thursday night at Heinz Field. He had a huge game against them in the Steelers' 38-10 victory Oct. 19, getting two of the Steelers' seven sacks and five quarterback hurries.
Get this: The Bengals allowed eight sacks Sunday in their 13-13 tie with the Philadelphia Eagles, but that is only the beginning of their troubles. Veteran left tackle Levi Jones was in and out of the game because of a knee problem. If he can't go Thursday night, rookie Anthony Collins probably will make his first NFL start.
Harrison will be waiting, no matter what.
For him, Thursday night can't get here soon enough.