´ Steel Curtain Rising: James Harrison's Contribution to the Steelers Linebacker Legacy

Who gets the game ball for the win over the Colts?

Monday, September 16, 2013

James Harrison's Contribution to the Steelers Linebacker Legacy

The Pittsburgh Steelers are a franchise that yields nothing to any other NFL franchise when it comes to linebacking.

In 1970’s, Andy Russell and Hall of Famers Jack Ham and Jack Lambert set the standard. Since then, notable Steelers linebackers have fallen into two categories.
  • Those who have upheld the standard, and those who added their own legacy to it.
The fact that he will not finish his career with the Pittsburgh Steelers in no way diminishes James Harrison’s contribution to Steelers proud Linebacker Legacy.

The Steelers Linebacker Legacy

Steelers Nation does not accept linebackers who merely play “above the line.” Steelers Nation demands excellence for its linebackers.

The Steelers Media Guide used to run a page on the teams “Linebacker Legacy.” From 1969 to 1987 the Steelers sent at least one linebacker to the Pro Bowl. The steak ended with Mike Merriweather in ’87, but began anew in 1991 with Greg Lloyd, ended in 1998 with Levon Kirkland, only to begin again in 2001 with Jason Gildon continuing with James Harrison into 2010.

With such a time-honored tradition at linebacker, one may ask, what must a linebacker do to add to the tradition instead of simply living up to it?

To contribute to Steelers Linebacker Legacy, a linebacker must:
  • Have a nasty streak
  • Be relentless
  • Strike fear into the hearts of quarterbacks
  • Step up when times get tough
  • Secure turnovers
  • Inspire his teammates
  • Make game-changing plays
James Harrison did all of these things, and Steel Curtain Rising now takes a look at how he did them and you can read and/or see them for yourself by clicking on the links below or simply scrolling down.

James Harrison Redefines “Nasty”
The Relentlessness of James Harrison
Striking Fear into Opposing Quarterbacks
Stepping It Up When Times Get Tough
James Harrison - Ball Hawk
Silverback Leading by Example
Super Bowl XLIII James Harrison, Game Changer

James Harrison Redefines “Nasty”

His predecessor Greg Lloyd wore t-shirts exclaiming “I wasn’t hired for my disposition.”

Joey Porter, his immediate predecessor, stirred up the pot once getting throw out of a game for pre game brawling and would follow opponents to the team bus. (Incidentally, Porter’s ejection at Cleveland led to Harrison’s first start we he registered 6 tackles and a sack.)

But Harrison’s signature “Nasty” came on Christmas Eve in 2005 and needs no words to describe it:



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The Relentlessness of James Harrison

Roger Goodell and Ray Anderson disciplined James Harrison as if Harrison thought he played by his own set of rules. In 2010 they had the decency to go public with their feud.

But prior Harrison had been fighting a Cold War with the officials, whereby the referees willfully looked the other way as opposing offensive lineman held Harrison, wrestled with Harrison and at times even horse collared him to the ground with nary a flag being thrown.
Harrison posted double digit sack seasons in 2009, 2010 and would have done so in 2011 had it not been for injury and suspension.

Silverback accomplished that feat despite essentially playing with one arm in late 2009, two herniated disks in 2010 and recovery from back surgery and then an orbital bone fracture in 2011.

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Striking Fear into Opposing Quarterbacks

Steve McNair was a Steelers slayer during his time in Tennessee and with Baltimore. But he had the misfortune to start the Steelers 75th Anniversary game which James Harrison chose as his moment to explode onto the national scene.

On that night, Harrison:
  • Sacked McNair 3 times and got a piece of another McNair pass
  • Intercepted a McNair pass and returned it for 20 yards
  • Defensed 1 pass
  • Forced 2 forced fumbles and recovered another fumble
  • Finished the game with 9 total tackles
McNair had been .500 in his four stars prior to that game. He lost both that night and in the two starts that followed, his final NFL action.

Steve McNair had owned the Steelers during his time in Tennessee and Baltimore. But he’d never had to start opposite James Harrison until that night.

It would seem that Silverback made a lasting impression.

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Stepping It Up When Times Get Tough

The glow of Super Bowl XLIII masks the fact that the 2008 Steelers were maddingly inconsistent on offense. Their late November game vs. San Diego provides a perfect example, as Ben Roethlisberger threw for 300 yards, Hines Ward caught for 100 yards, and Willie Parker ran for 115.

But the only points the Steelers scored were off of Jeff Reed’s leg and one defensive score.
  • And as if you had any doubt, that defensive score was made possible by a James Harrison strip sack in the end zone.
That wasn’t all that Harrison did that day. Late in the first half San Diego stood at their 2, threatening to score. James Harrison intercepted the ball and took it back 33 yards, setting up one of Reed’s field goals.

Oh, and if the Steelers backs were far enough to the wall, the penalty differential was 13-2 in San Diego’s favor that day.

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James Harrison - Ball Hawk

Sacking the quarterback is great. Sacking the quarterback and stripping the ball is even better. James Harrison had a knack for doing both. At times it seemed like he had a Tomahawk instead of a forearm and the numbers back this up.

james-harrison-greg-lloyd-steelers-forced-fumbles
Forced fumbles were a James Harrison specialty


This simple comparison highlights James Harrison’s uniqueness.

In 22% of his games, James Harrison caused the opponent to cough up the ball. Of the other Cowher-Tomin era outside linebackers, only Greg Lloyd had better with a “games with forced fumble” percentage.  

While outside linebackers are usually measured by sacks, the forced fumble is an equal and often times greater measure, as the chart indicates.

Of all the linebackers ranked, only Clark Haggans "overperforms" whereas LaMarr Woodley perhaps under performs. Otherwise you have a pretty fair ranking of the Steelers outside linebackers during the Cowher-Tomlin era.

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Silverback Leading by Example

Joey Porter antagonized the opposition. Greg Lloyd demanded excellence of his teammates both on and off the field. James Farrior acted the quarterback of the defense and led in the locker room.
  • Some players, quiet by their nature, lead by example.
Most players, when they reach elite status, refuse to play special teams. Yet when the Steelers kicking coverage was struggling against Jacksonville in the 2008 playoff game, James Harrison agreed to cover kicks.

Needless to say Jacksonville enjoyed no more long kickoff returns.

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Super Bowl XLIII James Harrison, Game Changer

Super Bowl XLIII will be remember for many things. Lombardi Number Six. Ben Roethlisberger authored the most incredible come from behind drive in Super Bowl history.

But what made that drive relevant came at the end of the first half, as Arizona was looking to score a touchdown with time expiring, when James Harrison made a read and decided to do a little free lancing. Here, one more time, is what happened:



Dick LeBeau calls James Harrison’s 100 yard touchdown run the best defensive play he has ever seen. What a game changer it was.

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Silverback Finishes Outside of Steelers Nation, But Legacy Remains Untarnished

Sadly, James Harrison will not finish his career in the Black and Gold. Salary cap considerations and pride did not allow it.

But that changes nothing. His contribution to the Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker Legacy will always remain intact.

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