Cook: Farrior 'unquestioned leader'

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Sometime around 6:15 tonight, Steelers coach Mike Tomlin will gather his guys around him in their Heinz Field locker room for the team prayer before the AFC championship game against the New York Jets. After that, he will have just one thing to do before he sends the team charging out of the tunnel and into the bedlam.

"PotDog, you got 'em," Tomlin will say to linebacker James Farrior.

Farrior will climb into the middle of the sweating, hulking mass of humanity. All eyes will be on the man they know as "Potsie." At that moment, it no longer will be Tomlin's team. It will be Farrior's team.

"Our unquestioned leader," Tomlin called him last week. "He sets the tone for this outfit."

The players won't need much of an emotional lift in those electric moments before kickoff. They already will be in a frenzied state, jacked up to get on the field and under the bright lights to play one of the biggest games of their lives. But Farrior will provide a lift anyway. He's been doing it before every game since former teammate Joey Porter left after the 2006 season.

"I never know what I'm going to say until I get in front of them," Farrior said during a quieter moment last week in the cafeteria at the team's South Side headquarters. "It always comes from the heart."

It's an awesome responsibility, this team leader business. Farrior treats it as such. He knows those eyes are on him, not just before games but every day during the long football season. He realizes that's much tougher scrutiny than any provided by the fans or media.

"It means I have to always be on point," Farrior said. "I can't ever screw up. I can't ever slack off."

And one more thing ...

"I have to keep playing my [fanny] off."

That most of all.

A team leader's words can be powerful, but the credentials behind the man are what make him truly effective. Farrior's are terrific. He turned 36 on Jan. 6 and has lasted 14 seasons in the NFL, the past nine with the Steelers. To say he was the best veteran free-agent signing in franchise history would not be a reach. Since he's been here, the defense consistently has been among the league's best. This season, it ranked No. 2 overall, No. 1 against the run and in points allowed. The Steelers wouldn't be in the AFC title game, let alone have a chance to win a third Super Bowl in six years, without its brilliance.

Safety Troy Polamalu won the team's MVP award and linebacker James Harrison likely finished second in the voting. But I'm not sure Farrior wasn't the MVP. He played as if he were 25, not 35. This might have been his best season.

That didn't happen by accident.

Farrior didn't like the way the defense performed last season, blowing five fourth-quarter leads and causing the 9-7 Steelers to miss the playoffs. He especially didn't like the way he played, getting beaten by running backs on key fourth-down pass plays in losses at Cincinnati and Baltimore.

"I definitely felt like I could have played a lot better," Farrior said. "I felt like I let the team down. I did everything in my power to change that. I worked harder in the offseason than I ever did. I got my body in the best shape possible. And I focused more on the details."

The results have been extraordinary.

Farrior plans on playing next season. "Oh, yeah, I'll be back. They're going to have to drag me out of here. The passion is still there. My love for the game is still there."

Of more immediate concern for Farrior, of course, is the game tonight. The Jets beat the Steelers, 22-17, at Heinz Field Dec. 19 in large part because the Steelers' defense didn't force a turnover and had just one sack for no yards by Farrior.

"I don't think we got enough pressure on [quarterback Mark Sanchez]," Farrior said. "That is going to be the key to this game, getting pressure on him and forcing him into third-and-long situations and making him win the game."

It's comforting to the Steelers to know Farrior will be in the middle of the defense, calling the signals, making sure everyone is lined up properly and then making his share of the plays. Certainly, it will be comforting to them when he gets in front of them in those tense moments before the game. They love that his voice will be the last voice they hear before they strap on their helmets and play for such high stakes.

It really is a powerful voice.

That was proven again during the Steelers' playoff game against the Baltimore Ravens Jan. 15 when Farrior also spoke to the team at halftime, this time with even more passion and intensity.

"We were down, 21-7, and everyone knew the situation," he said. "But I didn't like the vibe in there. It didn't feel like the mood was right. I knew someone needed to say something."

So someone did.

"What the hell is going on with you guys? It's too quiet in here. This is the [bleeping] playoffs. Now let's go play Steelers football!"

Simple, but effective.

The Steelers outscored the Ravens, 24-3, in the second half as their defense forced three turnovers and limited the Baltimore offense to 28 yards.

It wasn't just a great team win.

It was PotDog at his best.

Ron Cook: .


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