Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) sacks Miami Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore (8), forcing a fumble that was recovered by the Steelers, during the first half of an AFC wild-card NFL football game in Pittsburgh, Sunday, Jan. 8, 2017. (AP Photo/Don Wright)
PITTSBURGH -- With his two young sons on his lap, James Harrison sat patiently in front of his locker early Sunday night as a producer from one of the national TV networks scrambled to set up a live interview inside the Steelers locker room.
Unable to establish a connection back to her studio host, the rattled producer finally conceded defeat and began apologizing profusely. Smiling, which Harrison rarely does, at least not in front of the media, the veteran linebacker said, “That’s all right.”
That moment was one of the few things that didn’t go Harrison’s or the Steelers’ way at Heinz Field on Sunday. Neither sub-freezing temperatures nor the Miami Dolphins were about to stop Harrison from taking another big step toward his fourth Super Bowl.
“James, man, he’s an alien,” said linebacker Ryan Shazier. “He’s like 40 playing professional football. Only thing you can be 40 is playing professional basketball and they don’t hit each other that much.”
And Harrison -- “only” 38, to be clear -- still likes to hit. In fact, he still does it better than most players nearly half his age. Just ask Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore and his teammates. During Sunday’s convincing 30-12 win over Miami, which propelled the Steelers into the divisional round against Kansas City next week, Harrison contributed 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, two hurries and one critical forced fumble.
“He shows everyone the Steeler Way and that’s what you saw out there today,” said linebacker Lawrence Timmons.
As expected, the Big Three, the Killer B’s or whatever you want to call the triumvirate of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown -- united for the first time in a playoff game -- announced their presence with authority on offense.
Just as importantly, so too did the Steelers’ defense.
That would be the same defense that was embarrassed in Week 6 when Dolphins running back Jay Ajayi rushed for 204 yards. Except, of course, it’s not really the same defense. The Steelers have since added a trio of rookies -- Artie Burns, Sean Davis and Javon Hargrave -- into the starting lineup. And the outside linebacker rotation isn’t really a rotation anymore with only Harrison and Bud Dupree seeing the field.
In mid-October, Harrison had been splitting time with Jarvis Jones while Dupree was still on the mend following September groin surgery. But since relieving Jones of starting duties after the Dallas debacle in Week 10, Harrison has four sacks and the Steelers haven’t lost in eight weeks.
The return of Dupree four weeks ago has added even more tenacity and speed to a defense which has it in droves.
The Harrison-Dupree tandem isn’t quite Greene-Lloyd of the mid-‘90s or even Harrison-Woodley of the mid-aughts, but the potential is there. By taking an extended look at Jones, before the 2013 first-rounder’s contract expires, Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo, the Steelers now have a rested and productive Harrison and Dupree.
As much as on the field, Shazier says, Harrison inspires off the field, in the weight room and in the class room.
“I see him in there working all the time,” Shazier said. “He shows everybody his stuff on Instagram, but there’s so much more that he does that people don’t even know about.
“He is probably, him and Le’Veon and AB, are some of the hardest working people I know. He’s definitely shown it. That’s why he’s consistently playing at a high level, even at the age he is.”
In Pittsburgh, high-level and physical linebacker play isn’t just celebrated, it’s revered. Want to talk physical? Look at the final 7:16 of the first half Sunday.
You can argue the legality of Dupree’s vicious hit on Moore. The play was flagged for roughing the passer (though Mike Tomlin wasn’t happy with the call). You can even argue the validity of the NFL’s concussion protocol, which quickly cleared Moore to return after the hit. But you can’t understate the seismic impact that Dupree’s hit had on Sunday’s game.
“I thought it was clean, me personally,” said Dupree. “I was in coverage and saw (Moore) break contain. I just ran up and tried to get a sack. I wasn’t trying to injure him. Just trying to get the sack. Just trying to make a big play.”
After the Dolphins got the ball back via a Roethlisberger interception and worked their way deep into Pittsburgh territory, Harrison made the biggest, if not most timely, play of the game. With Miami threatening to make it a one-score game, on first-and-goal from the 8, Harrison faked dropping back in coverage and then stormed, unimpeded on Moore, drilling the QB in the back and forcing the ball loose where Stephon Tuitt recovered. Though there was still another half to play, the game was effectively over.
“It feeds us,” Dupree said of Harrison’s splash plays. “Makes everyone want to go out there and make more plays.”
Ajayi, who had the third-best rushing day against the Steelers in Week 6, had just 33 yards on 16 carries (2.1 per). The Dolphins, in their garish, tropical aqua uniforms, looked fresh out of water in frozen Pittsburgh against this version of the Steelers defense.
With Bell, Brown and Roethlisberger, the Steelers are clearly good enough on the offensive side of the ball to win a Super Bowl. On Sunday, Pittsburgh’s defense made a pretty compelling case for itself. But, as Harrison knows, tougher challenges still await.
“This defense is good enough to win this week, we’ll see if we’re good enough to win next week,” Harrison said.