Thursday, November 15, 2007
By Ed Bouchette, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
James Farrior and Larry Foote had a little debate early this year: Which of them would be gone when Mike Tomlin installed the new 4-3 defense?
There's room for only one middle linebacker in the 4-3.
"He was saying it was him" who would remain a starter, Farrior said, "and I was saying it was me."
Then Tomlin declared there would be no 4-3, and Farrior and Foote remained the starting inside linebackers in the 3-4. Still, some wondered how long Farrior might maintain that job because linebackers often do not flourish at age 32 in their 11th pro season.
On Sunday, Farrior returns to his first home in the NFL at the top of his game when he joins his teammates in the Meadowlands against the New York Jets, who drafted him in the first round in 1997 from Virginia.
The oldest starter on the Steelers' defense not only has not lost his job, but he also has not lost a step. He leads the Steelers in tackles again, something he has done every season but one since 2003, the year after he signed with them as an unrestricted free agent.
His five sacks also are second to James Harrison's 6.5 and his career high for an entire season at a position that does not rush the passer much.
"He's having a good year," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "It's tough when you've been playing 11 years and as long as he has. He's at a high-impact position. It's difficult to play more than 11 or 12 years, very difficult, and he's still playing well for us at a high level."
Only a handful of linebackers ended their careers with the Steelers having played longer than 11 seasons since the 1970s league merger. Jack Ham, Andy Russell and Bryan Hinkle played 12. Others who began with the Steelers and finished elsewhere were Hardy Nickerson at 16 seasons and Chad Brown, who was in his 15th when the Patriots released him Oct. 10.
It's rare territory that Farrior treads.
"James is a great athlete," defensive end Aaron Smith said, giving one reason Farrior has been able to play at a high level in his 11th season. "I think that's one thing people forget. The man was a first-round pick; you don't get that just by being an average athlete. He's that, a great player, a great leader."
Farrior serves as the lone captain of a defense that holds the NFL's winning numbers across the board. They rank 1-1-1 -- No. 1 overall, No. 1 against the rush and No. 1 against the pass.
"That's hard to beat right there," Farrior said.
Everyone knows the Steelers drafted two linebackers in the first two rounds this year and put top pick Lawrence Timmons at inside linebacker. Timmons, though, has played exclusively on special teams.
As a concession to his age, Farrior began his offseason workouts earlier this year, and, as a result, lost 4 or 5 pounds. "I felt good with it, that's why I kept it down. My body actually has been holding up a lot better than previous years."
That's good news for a guy who made All-Pro in 2004 and finished second to Baltimore safety Ed Reed as defensive player of the year.
"He should have made it the year before that, for sure; every year," said his backup, veteran Clint Kriewaldt. "He's just a smart, hard-nosed linebacker. You can always count on him."
Farrior calls the defensive plays and makes sure everyone is in place. As the buck linebacker, he must be stout enough to stop the run and athletic enough to often cover receivers -- his three passes defensed lead all of their linebackers.
"He's the quarterback of the D," Clark Haggans said. "He makes all the calls, keeps the vibe right and is the anchor of the whole defense. He's Steady Freddy."