Former backup linebacker special teams ace James Harrison gets his shot at big role.
In the old days, when people did such things, James Harrison would be the guy in the crowd to volunteer to wrestle the bear.
He is crazy enough to take on the task, strong and smart enough to accomplish it. He does it, after all, every day in practice and soon will do it every Sunday for the Steelers. He wrestles bears, in this case big ol' offensive tackles who could smother him with their size, if they could ever get hold of him.
Harrison stands slightly over 6 feet, and he has a tall order in coach Mike Tomlin's first edition of a Steelers team. Harrison will replace Joey Porter, whose reputation by word and action on the field left a vapor trail all the way to Miami that won't soon disappear.
Porter was admired by teammates, hated by opponents and adored by fans who loved how he backed up taunts to players such as Seattle tight end Jerramy Stevens and teams such as the Indianapolis Colts and Cincinnati Bengals.
Harrison has not been much of a taunter, publicly, but he has done well at backing things up. He is more than the guy who body-slammed a Browns fan on the field in Cleveland on Christmas Eve 2005. He has been the Steelers' best special teams player and No. 3 linebacker for three years. Now, he gets a shot for his personal big show, replacing Porter's big shoes at right outside linebacker.
"I'll do my best to uphold that and do better," Harrison said. "Anybody can talk the talk until you walk the walk."
Harrison has been the Steelers' little secret the past several years, but, at 29 years old, he could become an overnight sensation. He has been especially productive when thrust into starting jobs for injured starters Clark Haggans and Porter. There was the memorable game, again in Cleveland in 2004, when Porter was ejected before kickoff for a pregame fight. Harrison started instead and had a sack, a pressure, a pass defensed and six tackles.
Most everyone knows the story how Harrison made the team, a free agent from Kent State who knocked on the Steelers' door twice in two years only to get turned away. He played in NFL Europe and was released by Baltimore in the summer of his third year of trying to make the NFL. The Steelers only picked him up a week before training camp that year (2004) because Haggans had a broken hand and they needed another camp linebacker.
He has been with them since.
He has the mean streak of Jack Lambert, a notable Kent State alum, and, surprisingly, about the height of former All-Pro Greg Lloyd.
"He has a toughness that's been indicative of the Steelers' defense for a while," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "He's a tough, physical player, a strong player. He brings a tenacity, too."
That fierce resolve, early on, frightened a coach or two, who weren't sure if they would end up like that wayward Browns fan. At 242 pounds, Harrison packs powerful leverage that can give him an advantage over tackles 7 inches taller and 100 pounds heavier.
"It's hard to keep him from getting underneath them and penetration or pressure from the edge," Butler said. "His height is probably an advantage for him."
"You have to use that leverage," Harrison said. "You have a guy who sometimes outweighs you by 100 pounds, the only thing you can use is your leverage, and, with my height, I feel it's an advantage for me."
The bigger question about Harrison is not will he produce, but will he last. He never has started more than four games in a season and now the Steelers plan to use him on special teams as well.
"You can't pace yourself," Harrison said. "That's why we went out and drafted a couple of guys. If you get tired, we want to have somebody to step in there for a few plays and give you a little break."
The Steelers drafted two outside linebackers in the first two rounds, Lawrence Timmons and LaMarr Woodley. Timmons is listed on the depth chart behind Harrison and, as long as there is progress, it usually does not take long before the star rookie gets more playing time. Perhaps, Timmons will spell Harrison, particularly in pass-rushing situations.
Harrison isn't worried about what's behind him, but what's ahead.
"Can he hold up for all that? I don't know if anybody can," Butler said. "But that will be up to [Tomlin] and that'll be up to the special teams coach. My concern is how he plays linebacker, and I think he'll do well."