Kovacevic: Harrison, Troy back as anchors
There was a whole lot to like about the Steelers' first-teamers in the 24-14 domination of Philadelphia's self-proclaimed Dream Team Thursday night, not least of which was Ben Roethlisberger in peak playground form, the Rashard & Redman rushing express, an offensive line patching up for two lost left tackles, and a defense that rendered Michael Vick as mobile as Kent Graham.
Really, it was about as exhilarating as an exhibition gets, especially after the egg laid last week in Washington.
"This was our chance to show what this defense was all about," linebacker LaMarr Woodley said.
Me, I would have settled for the NFL's Defensive Players of the Year for 2008 and 2010 simply walking onto, then walking off the Heinz Field grass without the help of a cart, stretcher or trainer.
Instead, I got much more.
No, James Harrison and Troy Polamalu weren't wholly themselves in their first real action since Super Bowl XLV. Neither recorded a tackle for the better part of the first half in which the first-teamers played. Neither even spent much time near the ball, with Polamalu so deep in center field he could have been confused with Andrew McCutchen.
Still, true to the history of these exceptional athletes, they delivered the back-to-back knockout blows late in the half.
With 1:12 left, Harrison and cornerback Donovan Warren swarmed Vick from behind for a shared sack, Harrison's left arm crashing down on Vick's shoulder like an anvil.
"The whole game felt good, felt strong," Harrison said. "We were able to do a lot of good things."
With the next snap on third-and-10, Vick's pass downfield was tipped by Woodley and descended into the arms of Polamalu, who winded his way back 36 yards, that mane flapping left and right with each dodge, before Vick brought him down with a dangerously low tackle.
"It's reckless, immature, Pop Warner," teased fellow safety Ryan Clark of the return. "But it's fun."
Yeah, just like the old No. 43.
When Polamalu returned to the sideline, coach Mike Tomlin greeted him by saying, "I'm over it."
"I want to take it back if I can," Polamalu said. "In the middle of a play, you're not thinking too much. Really, I just wanted to go out there and play ball. It felt good to be out there."
Sweeter still for this symmetry, Harrison had made such a bold initial rush that he would have drawn a holding penalty if not for the interception.
By halftime, the Eagles' offense had wasted 6:57 of everyone's time, and the Steelers' defense had its dynamic anchors back.
"Those guys are who they are," Tomlin said. "They're both former defensive-player-of-the-year type dudes, so we come to expect that play from them."
Hey, if you can name something that matters more to the Steelers' fortunes for 2011 than a healthy Harrison and Polamalu, I'm all ears. For all the other terrific pieces and all Dick LeBeau's schemes, the great separator with this defense is that it's next to impossible for opponents to scheme against Harrison, Polamalu and Woodley.
Harrison is 33 now, and he's coming off two surgeries in February and March to address a herniated disk in his lower back. There have been no complications so far, but any doctor will attest that there's no such thing as minor back surgery. All come with risk, all are prone to relapse, and uncertainty mounts with age. For sure, it was plenty sobering to see that back wrapped in ice after his exit last night.
Polamalu crossed into 30 since we last saw him and the rest of the secondary gobbled up by Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers, and he still isn't fully recovered from the Achilles' tendon he injured last December. Sure, he toughed it out after that and was helped by a coaching staff that allowed him to play well off the line of scrimmage. But that's Clark Kent to Polamalu's Superman.
It's going to take time.
Or, as Harrison put it, "It's coming."
Give both credit for being blunt about their health. Harrison said again last night that he "won't be 100 percent" until the Sept. 11 opener, and Polamalu reiterated, "I'm not 100 percent yet." Those figures were confirmed on the field last night, but at least the trend is headed upward.