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Harrison named defensive player of the month

October 29, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players

The Steelers defense has not played up to the standard that they set last year.  They have allowed opponents to make 4th quarter comebacks, and have not been the dominant unit that they were last year.

Much of the problems has been due to injury.  Lawrence Timmons started the season with an ankle injury.  Then Troy Polamalu went down with a knee injury.  And finally, Aaron Smith was lost for the season due to a shoulder injury.

But lost in the rash of injuries and defensive letdowns has been the extremely consistent play of Steelers linebacker James Harrison.

Because of his consistency, Harrison has been named AFC defensive player of the month for the month of October.

Steelers LB James Harrison

Steelers LB James Harrison

Harrison is second in the NFL in sacks with 8.  He trails only the surprising Elvis Dumervil of the Denver Broncos.  He also leads the NFL in forced fumbles, a category he also led the NFL in last season.

With 8 sacks already, Harrison is on a pace to break the Steelers single season sack record.  The record is 16 sacks, and was set by Harrison in 2008.

Frankly, I was surprised to hear of Harrison’s award.  Harrison has not seemed to be the dominant force that we grew accustomed to watching last year.  While he has been very consistent, Harrison has not had any of the completely dominant games that we saw from him so often last year.

He is still being held on almost every play, and referees continue to disregard the obvious holds.

With that in mind, I strongly believe that Harrison’s best play is still ahead of him.  That should be a welcome thought to Steelers fans, and a nightmare for the rest of the NFL.


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A tribute to Larry Foote

May 05, 2009 By: Admin Category: Players

May 5, 2009
By Donald Starver

Well, the Larry Foote saga finally came to an end with the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The Steelers released him yesterday.

This comes as no surprise to fans.  ESPN mistakenly reported that the Steelers had released him last week.  They hadn’t.  However, Foote had asked for an opportunity to play for a team that would allow him to be more than a two down linebacker.  Unspoken in his request was probably also a desire to get one final big payday before his career is over.  Nothing wrong with that.  After all, Foote is 28 years old, and NFL players can’t play forever.

The Steelers tried to honor Foote’s request.  They tried to trade him to another team.  However, they got no takers in the trade market.  Perhaps this was inevitable.  Why would a team give the Steelers a draft pick for Foote when they knew that they could get him for free when the Steelers released him?  So on Monday, the Steelers gave Foote his unconditional release.


I have read various Steelers message boards, and heard fans say some things about Foote that I found to be disturbing.  First, I saw several fans call Foote “disloyal” for requesting a trade.  I don’t understand this line of thinking.  Fans have to understand that the NFL is a business, and that there is no such thing as loyalty.  Frankly, why should a player be loyal to a team, when teams can cut players anytime they want to?  Moreover, when the players are cut, the teams owe them nothing, even if they still have years left on their contract.  So in my opinion, the disloyalty argument just doesn’t hold up.

Foote was not disloyal.  He was a victim of the realities of the salary cap in the NFL.  He was a 28 year old player with a $3 million dollar salary cap hit, and a younger, faster, 1st round draft pick playing behind him.  Foote’s fate was sealed, whether he had requested a trade or not.

Other fans have said that Foote was the weak link in the Steelers defensive lineup, and that he needed to go.  Sorry, but I can’t agree with that argument either.  Sure, Larry was the least decorated of the Steelers’ starting linebackers.  But he plays on a team with NFL Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison, Pro Bowler James Farrior, and emerging superstar LaMarr Woodley.  That’s a pretty outstanding bunch.  Somebody has to be a role player.

Foote played a role, and he played it well.  Need proof?  Larry Foote started every game for the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2004.  The Steelers defense is the top rated defense in the NFL over that period.  That’s right, #1.  During that time, Joey Porter left the team, and James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley became starters, but Larry Foote was always there.  The quiet constant in the Steelers’ dominant “D”.

Perhaps the most important statistic of all is that Larry Foote was the starting linebacker on two Super Bowl championship teams.  He helped put two Lombardi trophies in the Steelers’ trophy case.  How many did Greg Lloyd win?  None.  Kevin Greene?  None.  Jason Gildon?  None.  Levon Kirkland?  None.  Mike Merriweather?  None.  Kendrell Bell?  None. See my point?

I’m not saying that Foote was a better player than the linebackers listed above.  He wasn’t.  But Larry Foote was a reliable, dedicated player on some of the greatest teams in Steelers history.  Only the Steel Curtain of the 1970′s accomplished more.  For that, Foote will always hold a position of honor.


Like former Steelers Joey Porter, Kevin Greene, Rod Woodson, Carnell Lake, Clark Haggans, Kimo Von Oelhoffen, and Levon Kirkland, Foote will not end his playing career with the Steelers.  But there is an interesting phenomenon that happens with Steelers players.  Even if they go to another team, in their hearts they always remain Steelers.  Rod Woodson won a Super Bowl with the Ravens.  But he thinks of himself as a Steeler.  Kevin Greene only played for the Steelers for 2 seasons.  But he thinks of himself as a Steeler.  The Miami Dolphins made Joey Porter a very rich man.  But in his heart, he is still a Steeler.

The Steelers organization, and Steeler Nation has a funny way of doing that to players.  It gets in their system, and they can’t get it out.  No matter where they go.  Once a Steeler, always a Steeler.  Players understand that for a brief period of time, they were a part of something special.  They know that the Steelers are not just any football team.  They know that Steelers fans are not just any fans.

Good luck, Larry.  You will always be a Steeler.  Regardless of whether you sign with your hometown Detroit Lions, or if you end up with the Arizona Cardinals (like 99% of ex-Steelers), your heart will always be in Pittsburgh, and we will always consider you to be family.

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The 3-4 and the Steelers’ draft (part 4)

March 31, 2009 By: Admin Category: Draft/Free Agency

March 31, 2009
By Donald Starver

Note:  This is part 4 in a series.  If you haven’t already read the previous chapters, please click the appropriate link below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

In part 3 of our series on the 3-4 defense and how it affects the Steelers’ draft, we talked about the defensive end.  Now it’s time to break down the glamor position on any 3-4 defense; the linebackers.

The 4 in the title “3-4 defense” represents the fact that there are 4 linebackers in a 3-4.  Unlike the 4-3, where there are two outside linebackers (the Sam and the Will linebackers) and a middle linebacker (the Mike linebacker), in the 3-4 defense, there are two outside linebackers and two inside linebackers.  In the Steelers’ case, LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison are the outside linebackers, while James Farrior and Lawrence Timmons are the inside linebackers (notice how I subtly promoted Lawrence Timmons to starter).

While pressure in a 4-3 defense come from the four down linemen, in a 3-4 defense, the pressure comes from the linebackers.  At least one of the outside linebackers will be rushing the quarterback on almost every play.  Unlike the down linemen, the OLB’s rush from a 2 point stance, so they’re standing up.  The outside linebackers will almost always lead a 3-4 team in quarterback sacks.

The linebacker is probably the most flexible position on the field, and can be used in a myriad of ways.  Linebackers may blitz, they may stay in their area and protect a zone, or they may drop into coverage and guard a tight end or even a running back going out for a pass.

Because of the wide variety of things that linebackers are asked to do, linebackers come in many sizes.  Typically, linebackers will range from 225 pounds to 270 pounds, depending on their specialty.  However, former Steelers linebacker Levon Kirkland often played at a weight of nearly 300 lbs.  Moreover, Kirkland was surprisingly fast and was reasonably good at dropping into coverage.

The two inside linebackers typically weigh around 240 lbs., and are expected to be quite athletic.  They must be able to chase down extremely fast running backs who penetrate the defensive line.

The two outside linebackers will typically be bigger than the two inside linebackers, since they have to face massive offensive tackles on a regular basis.  Outside linebackers in a 3-4 will generally weigh between 255 - 270 pounds and be quite fast.  Many 3-4 linebackers were actually defensive ends in college.  However, they may have been either too small to play DE in the NFL, or they may be able to play both DE or OLB depending on which type of defense their team runs.  The Steelers’ LaMarr Woodley was a defensive end at Michigan.

The Steelers don’t have a grave need at linebacker.  In addition to last year’s starters, Lawrence Timmons is poised to break into the starting lineup, Arnold Harrison was re-signed, Keyaron Fox is a solid backup, and Bruce Davis will have a year of experience under his belt.  However, you can never have too many linebackers in a 3-4 defense.  I won’t be surprised if the Steelers select at least one linebacker in this draft.

This year’s draft class is loaded with talented linebackers and “tweener” defensive ends who will be moved to OLB in a 3-4 system.

The top two inside linebackers in this year’s draft are Rey Maualuga of USC and James Laurinaitis of Ohio State.

Rey Maualuga is 6’2″ and weighs 254 pounds.  He is strong and extremely physical.  He can deliver punishing blows at the point of attack.  His best position will be the “Mike” in a 4-3 defense.

James Laurinaitis is a 6’2″ 240 linebacker from Ohio State.  He is a 3 time All-American, a very intelligent player, and some consider him to be the safest pick of this year’s linebackers. 

The best of the outside linebackers include Aaron Curry, Brian Cushing, Clint Sintim, and Clay Matthews.

Aaron Curry (6’2″, 246 lbs.) is viewed by many as the elite linebacker in this draft.  He has a rare combination of size, strength, and speed.  He is equally good dropping into coverage as he is in run support.  He is the most versatile linebacker in the draft, and will probably be the first linebacker selected.

Brian Cushing (6’3″, 243 lbs.) played DE, OLB and MLB in college.  Probably best suited to play strong side linebacker.  A sure top 20 pick.

Clint Sintim (6’3″, 249 lbs) is a strong, fast pass rusher.  He is a bit stiff, and struggles in coverage.  He was once thought of as a potential first round selection, but poor performances in Senior Bowl practices and a sub-par pro day have dropped him to the second or third round.  He probably won’t excel in a 4-3, but he would be a good pick as a rush linebacker in a 3-4.

Clay Matthews (6’3″, 246) is the third USC linebacker who might get selected in the first round.  Matthews played both LB and DE at USC.  He lacks the size to play DE at the next level, and will move exclusively to LB.  His size and skill set probably makes him best suited to play ILB in a 3-4 system.

In part 3 of our series, we outlined several college defensive ends who could potentially make the change to OLB in the NFL.  Here are two additional college defensive ends who will probably be best suited to play OLB at the next level.

Aaron Maybin (6’4″, 248 lbs.) is a unique player.    He is very experienced at dropping into zone coverage.  He is tall and has a tremendous burst as a pass rusher or in chasing down ball carriers.  However, Maybin is lacking in the strength department.  He has no bull rush, and struggles to disengage from blockers.  This probably eliminates him from consideration as a 4-3 DE.  His best option is as a 3-4 OLB.  However, he will need to spend lots of time with the strength coach at the next level.

Larry English (6’2″, 254 lbs.) played defensive end at Norther Illinois.  However, he lacks the bulk to play that position at the next level.  He has no experience dropping into coverage, so teams will be evaluating his potential to do so.  However, his overall speed and athleticism appears to translate well to the 3-4 OLB position.

 Because of the large number of linebacker candidates available in this draft, several quality linebackers will be available when the Steelers draft at #32, and a few may even be available at #64.  However, since LB is not a glaring need for the Steelers, they are much more likely to pick up a LB later in the draft.

To read the other installments in this series, click below:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

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The case for James Harrison as NFL MVP

December 30, 2008 By: Admin Category: Players

December 29,2008
By Donald Starver

Sports writers are hypocrites.  They are quick to spout trite phrases like “defense wins championships”, yet when they are called upon to show what they really believe, their actions prove that they believe that offense wins championships.

Each year, the Associated Press selects the NFL MVP.  And each year they go through their annual ritual of proving that they only value offense.

Since the AFL and NFL merged in 1970 there have been 40 NFL MVP’s.  Of those, 25 have been quarterbacks and 12 have been running backs.  That’s 92.5% for those of you who like statistics.  The only anomalies from this rule were linebacker Lawrence Taylor in 1986, kicker Mark Moseley during the strike shortened 1982 season, and DT Alan Page in 1971.

Two defensive MVP’s since the merger.  Pathetic!  So much for “defense wins championships”.

Of the NFL’s 5 top ranked offenses, 4 of them will be watching the playoffs from their living rooms.  Prolific passer Drew Brees and the #1 ranked New Orleans Saints offense had an amazing season.  Too bad their season’s over.  Same for the Denver Broncos, the NFL’s #2 offense.  The Houston Texans had the 3rd best offense in the NFL this season.  They’re also vacationing now.  So how important is offense if it can’t even carry a team into the playoffs?

Contrarily, 4 of the top 5 defenses in the NFL will make playoff appearances.  The lone holdout was the Washington Redskins, and if they played in any division other than the brutal NFC East, they too would probably have made the playoffs.  Despite these obvious arguments for the importance of defense, look for Drew Brees, Peyton Manning, Adrian Peterson, Kurt Warner, and Philip Rivers to garner most of the MVP votes.  Idiotic, if you ask me.

In January of 2001, when the Baltimore Ravens where enjoying a parade following the first Super Bowl championship in team history, was there anyone in the known universe who didn’t agree that Ray Lewis was the MVP?  I’m not talking about the Super Bowl MVP.  I don’t mean the Defensive Player of the Year.  Nope, Ray Lewis was the friggin’ NFL MVP.  For the Ravens, defense DID win a championship, and Ray Lewis was the engine that drove that defense.  Some quarterback or running back may be babysitting his MVP trophy, but we all know it belongs to Ray.

This year, we have the potential for a similar injustice.  The Pittsburgh Steelers enter the playoffs with the league’s #1 ranked defense.  They allow the fewest points per game.  They allow the fewest yards per game.  They are #1 against the pass, and #2 against the run.  They were #1 against the run as recently as week 14, but were surpassed by the Minnesota Vikings’ defense late in the season.  Suffice it to say that the Steelers’ defense is pretty good.

The best player on that defense is James Harrison.  Harrison was voted team MVP for the second year in a row.  He will also make his second consecutive Pro Bowl appearance since becoming a starter last year.  The Steelers have a $100 million quarterback in Ben Roethlisberger, but James Harrison is the team’s two-time MVP.  Think about that for a moment.

On a team with a tradition for great defenses, James Harrison broke the Steelers’ all-time record for sacks in a season.  Neither Joe Greene, nor Jack Lambert, nor Greg Lloyd, nor Kevin Greene, nor Jack Ham, nor Joey Porter, nor Jason Gildon, nor L.C. Greenwood, nor any other Steeler has ever harrassed opposing quarterbacks like James Harrison did this year.  When you think about all of the Hall-of-Famers who have played for the Steelers, that’s pretty amazing.

Sure, there are other defensive players who deserve attention.  DeMarcus Ware and former Steeler Joey Porter both had more sacks than Harrison.  But in many ways, they’re both one trick ponies.  Ravens’ safety Ed Reed and Steelers’ safety Troy Polamalu also had fantastic seasons.  But they didn’t fill stat sheets like Harrison.  Same with Tennessee’s Albert Haynesworth.  He had a great year.  Just not as great as Harrison’s.

Harrison’s off-field demeanor is so quiet and understated that it’s easy too overlook his accomplishments.  No defensive player filled stat sheets quite the way Harrison did.  Harrison ended the season ranked #4 in sacks.  However, unlike the 3 players who were ahead of him, Harrison is asked to do far more than sack the quarterback.  Harrison had 17 more tackles than sack leader DeMarcus Ware, 54 more than Joey Porter, and 63 more than John Abraham.

Anyone who has ever watched James Harrison play has probably noticed that he isn’t satisfied with simply sacking a quarterback.  When Harrison sacks a quarterback, he seems to think that forcing a fumble is also a requirement.  He led the league with 7 forced fumbles.

Harrison was tied for second in the NFL in forced safeties.  How many did Albert Haynesworth force?  zero.  How about DeMarcus Ware?  Zero.  Joey Porter?  Zero.

If you look at the league leaders in total tackles, you notice that this statistic is traditionally dominated by inside/middle linebackers and safeties, the guys who roam the middle of the field.  If we eliminate the inside/middle linebackers and safeties, and look at tackles by players at all other positions, James Harrison is 9th in the NFL.  Even when you add the inside/middle linebackers and safeties back into the statistics, Harrison is still 25th in the league.  Not bad for a guy who is only responsible for one side of the field, and who has to take on the opponent’s toughest offensive lineman (the left tackle) on every single play.

James Harrison is tied for 7th in the NFL in interceptions.  He has the same number as defensive backs Champ Bailey, Brian Dawkins, Jonathan Joseph, and Lawyer Milloy.

Harrison even has 4 passes defensed.  That may not sound like a lot, but for an outside linebacker, that it tremendous.  DeMarcus Ware has none.  Joey Porter has none.  See my point?

There is no doubt that Peyton Manning has had a great season.  And this Friday, I expect to hear his name called as this year’s NFL MVP.  But the reality is that Peyton Manning has not had as good a season as James Harrison.  In order to match what Harrison has done on defense, Manning would have to be among the league leaders in passing yards, rushing yards, punt return yards, kick return yards, and field goals.  That may sound like a ridiculous statement, but when you look at how broadly James Harrison has filled the defensive stat sheets, you quickly realize that it is an appropriate analogy.

Peyton Manning will probably receive his third NFL MVP Award this Friday.  However, those who truly understand football will know that he is merely babysitting James Harrison’s award, just like Marshall Faulk is babysitting Ray Lewis’.

If sportswriters had any courage, they would use their vote to correct this injustice.  But they don’t.  So they won’t.  Congratulations Peyton.

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