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Steelers LB Harrison expects more of same

| Sunday, Aug. 9, 2009

A group of NFL referees visited Steelers training camp this past week to address rules changes for the upcoming season.

James Harrison asked the officials about a long-standing rule that has always been open to interpretation. The All-Pro outside linebacker specifically sought clarification on holding — and whether it is, in fact, holding when an offensive lineman effectively clothes-lines Harrison as he is rushing the quarterback.

"The ref told me if he has his arm around me, and my feet are past his feet, then it's a hold," Harrison said. "We'll see if that's called. Sometimes, they call it, sometimes, they don't. They can't catch everything."

Harrison may have made the issue somewhat of a moot point considering that little held him back in 2008. Harrison set the team's single-season sack record on the way to NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors, and his Super Bowl heroics helped the Steelers win a sixth Lombardi Trophy.

There is no reason to expect a drop-off this season by Harrison for several reasons. LaMarr Woodley's presence opposite him doesn't allow teams to constantly double- and triple-team Harrison. Also, Harrison said his weight is up while his body fat is down and that he feels physically better than he did at this time last year.

"Last year, I think I overtrained a little bit," the 6-foot, 242-pounder said. "I actually had to take a week or two off because my body wasn't acting right before (training) camp. I wasn't sleeping at night, couldn't eat right. This year, I came in and just trained all the way through."

The former undrafted free agent's work ethic and drive have never been an issue, making what he can possibly do for an encore the biggest question about Harrison with the start of the season a little more than a month away.

"Will he be as productive as he was last year• We'll see," Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler said. "I think he should be better, and he will be better."

That is a chilling thought for offensive coordinators that have to figure out a way to solve the Steelers defense and neutralize — or at least contain — the player that wreaks the most havoc in it.

Even on a defense loaded with Pro Bowl-caliber players, Harrison stood out in 2008. That is evidenced by his winning the NFL's top award for defensive players even though he had four less sacks than Dallas outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware.

"I feel like I should have (won it)," Ware said, "but the thing is, me not being defensive player of the year last year has really motivated me even more this year to really show everybody it's not about a one-year deal."

That is exactly what Harrison showed in 2008 after making the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter.

He put the exclamation point on one of the top seasons ever by a Steelers defensive player with a 100-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Super Bowl. What could go down as the greatest single play in Super Bowl history could also serve as a metaphor for Harrison's career considering he took the equivalent of a 100-yard route to stardom.

Harrison got cut three times before sticking with the Steelers, and he didn't become a starter until he was 29 years old. His rise will be chronicled in the book "Never Give Up," which is due out before Thanksgiving.

"I'm very excited about what he was able to do, very thankful that he didn't give up because he opened the door for some more James Harrisons that will be behind him," San Francisco 49ers coach and Hall of Fame linebacker Mike Singletary said this past March. "Some will win, some won't. I love to see a story where a guy never gives up and continues to fight, continues to swing and continues to not let someone else tell him what he can and cannot do."

Harrison's perseverance landed him the second-richest contract ($51.175 million over six years) in Steelers' history. But Harrison getting big money during the offseason probably ranks somewhere around 92nd if not considerably lower on coach Mike Tomlin's list of concerns for the 2009 season.

"You see players get the money and the stardom he has and kind of sit back on their laurels, but he hasn't done that in training camp," Butler said. "He understands what got him here, and I'd be shocked if he didn't try to maintain it. From what I've seen in training camp, the notes he's taken in the meetings and what he's doing on the field, I'm very pleased with what's going on."

Harrison is well aware that he could have a better season in 2009 but also experience a drop in production. He said he will be anything but preoccupied with sack totals or any other statistics this season.

"If I get more sacks, less sacks, whatever it may be so be it," Harrison said. "I'm just coming in and trying to make our defense better. It's not all about the numbers."

By the numbers

Here is a numeric look at Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison:

1 — Harrison's rank among the Steelers' all-time single-season sack leaders

4 — Harrison's NFL rank in sacks this past season

13 — Fumbles Harrison forced in the past two seasons

16 — Sacks Harrison had this past season

100 — Tackles Harrison had this past season, establishing a career-high in that category

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