PITTSBURGH — When one talks about the ferocious, top-ranked defense of the Steelers, the conversation these days begins with outside linebacker James Harrison.
Not so long ago, the question would have been, James who? After all, he was cut three times by the Steelers during his five-year career before making his presence known and didn't become a starter until 2007.
But the relentless 6-foot, 240-pounder from Kent State isn't hard to pick out of the crowd anymore. He set a club record this season with 16 sacks and was named Monday as the NFL's defensive player of the year, an award packed with meaning for the Steelers given the past recipients from the Steel Curtain glory years: Joe Greene in 1972 and '74, Mel Blount in '75 and Jack Lambert in '76, not to mention Rod Woodson in 1993.
"I've done pretty well for the last two years," he told the media in Pittsburgh. "That doesn't compare to what they've done."
Still, No. 92 certainly will have the full attention of the San Diego Chargers in today's division playoff showdown at Heinz Field. Harrison made his impact felt in the regular-season meeting Nov. 16, sacking quarterback Philip Rivers in the end zone to force a safety — the difference in Pittsburgh's 11-10 victory.
One Charger assigned to protecting Rivers today will be rookie fullback Jacob Hester. His task? "Make sure you know where 92 is, I know that," Hester told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "But, shoot, you gotta watch all four of 'em. When we were voting for the Pro Bowl, that's the first thing you heard, the Pittsburgh linebackers, all four of 'em."
That would be fellow outsider linebacker LaMarr Woodley, with Larry Foote and two-time Pro Bowl pick James Farrior inside. The unit had 38.5 of the team's 51 sacks — the second-highest combined total for linebackers in NFL history (behind only the mark of 42.5 by none other than the 2006 Chargers).
Harrison and Woodley emerged as Pittsburgh's dynamic duo, breaking the team record for sacks by two players, combining for 27.5. They surpassed the 24 set by Jason Gildon and Joey Porter in 2000 and by Kevin Greene and Greg Lloyd in 1994.
Harrison led the NFL by forcing seven fumbles, tying Lloyd's club record and added 100 tackles and a team-high 34 pressures. Not bad for a player once considered a little on the small side for an NFL linebacker.
"Six-foot tall and 255 pounds — that is the new prototype outside linebacker," he said.
He was part of coordinator Dick LeBeau's unit that allowed a league-low 3.89 yards per play and did not allow a 100-yard rusher this year. That doesn't bode well for San Diego's Darren Sproles, who has surpassed 100 yards the past two games in relief of injured LaDainian Tomlinson (torn groin muscle).
Still, the 5-6, 180-pound Sproles, who racked up 328 total yards in the win over the Colts, has earned Harrison's respect.
"What (he) did last week against the Colts, that was amazing," Harrison told the Union-Tribune. "Any time you hear someone else downplaying someone's ability because of size and then he does good things, especially the kind of things he did, it drives you. It drives me. Seeing him do that made me feel good, because I've been in that category of guys who were told they were too short, too this, too that."
What impresses him most about Sproles? "He is fast and he is a lot stronger than everybody thinks he is," he added. "He's also hard to find."
That's one thing nobody says anymore about Harrison.
Dave Scheiber can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8541.