BEREA - Since the days of the Steel Curtain, the Steelers have been known for their linebackers. Jack Ham and Jack Lambert in the 1970s and `80s. Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene in the `90s.
But when Pro Bowler Joey Porter was allowed to walk away in free agency in the offseason, there appeared to be a vacancy at the heralded position. James Farrior, Larry Foote and Clark Haggans are solid, but they don`t change a game.
James Harrison stepped into the void Monday night.
Harrison, who was undrafted out of Kent State and was released by the Steelers three times before sticking, had a game to remember under the bright lights of prime time. He had nine tackles, 31/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception.
"Nobody knew that he could play as good of defense as he did," Farrior said on a conference call. "Now, he let the cat out of the bag and that`s what we`ll be looking for every week."
Harrison, an Akron native, stripped Baltimore quarterback Steve McNair for a sack and recovered the fumble. On a punt, he hit returner Yamon Figurs near the neck, knocking him out of the game. When Pittsburgh had to rekick, Harrison drilled replacement returner Ed Reed, dislodging the ball for another fumble.
Harrison also dropped into coverage to make an interception. All of the above took place in the first half.
"It looks like he beat several guys at the line, in the backfield and everywhere else," Browns coach Romeo Crennel said.
Harrison`s most impressive play vs. the Ravens wasn`t a turnover, but a display of athleticism and effort.
He ran a blitz stunt, came free and stripped the ball from McNair. The ball bounced to running back Willis McGahee, and Harrison immediately took off for him. But Harrison ran into a blocker, who knocked him sideways and well away from the play.
As McGahee continued to circle back by the goal line, Harrison never stopped, finally corralling him for a big loss.
"It seemed like he had more want-to than the guys he was playing against," Browns tight end Darnell Dinkins said.
Harrison and Dinkins work out together in the offseason. When a reporter floated the idea of running right at Harrison to take advantage of his size (6-foot, 242 pounds), Dinkins scoffed.
"He`s the strongest guy on their team," he said.
Harrison entered the league in 2002 but saw action in just one game. He was cut in 2003 and didn`t play. He finally hooked on for good in 2004, starting four games and playing special teams. His first start came at Cleveland Browns Stadium after Porter was ejected for a pregame fight with William Green.
Harrison remained a backup for the next two years, starting four more games. But when Porter left for the Dolphins, he got the call.
"He really couldn`t get into a game because Joey was here, but he was always a good player when one of our outside linebackers got hurt," Farrior said.
Harrison took immediate advantage of his starting opportunity, leading the Steelers with seven tackles in the opener vs. Cleveland. He added a sack. Left tackle Joe Thomas will be chiefly responsible for blocking him.
"He`s a great linebacker," running back Jamal Lewis said. "He just didn`t step on the scene. You have to respect him, find out where he`s at and know he`s a good blitzer."
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin couldn`t say enough about Harrison.
"He dominated the football game," he said. "James has great physical talent. He`s a gym rat. This is a guy that has come a long route in terms of his professional story. He`s worked to get where he is and he appreciates it. He doesn`t take it for granted and he`s reaping the rewards."
Harrison`s most memorable hit before Monday night came on Christmas Eve 2005 at Cleveland Browns Stadium during the Steelers` 41-0 win. A fan ran onto the field and Harrison body slammed him.
Harrison grew up a Browns fan, so he knows their frustration.
"I cried those Denver games when (John) Elway used to beat us in the last minute," Harrison told Pittsburgh reporters this week.
Contact Scott Petrak at 329-7135 or email@example.com.