Speaking softly, carrying big sacks

The Baltimore Sun

It's easy to see why Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison would dislike the Ravens.

There's the AFC North rivalry between the teams, there's the way defensive lineman Trevor Pryce dismissed his performance against the Ravens last year, and then there's his brief stint with Baltimore before being unceremoniously released.

But in refraining from providing bulletin-board material, Harrison said he has no issues with the Ravens.

"I don't feel like I have anything to prove to anybody but myself," Harrison told a group of Baltimore reporters during a conference call yesterday. "If somebody wants to say I can't do something, I want to prove them wrong. But as far as wanting to prove something to the Ravens, no, it's not my point."

If Harrison no longer carries a grudge against the Ravens, for a time he held on to a luggage tag that reminded him of his 1 1/2 -month stay with the Rhein Fire, the NFL Europe team he was allocated to by the Ravens in spring 2004.

Harrison returned to the Ravens that June for offseason workouts, and after 10 days, Harrison - who reportedly did not ingratiate himself within the organization - was released.

"I was mad that they made me play in Europe and then had the audacity to tell me not to practice the first week [back]," Harrison said in December 2004. "And then they had me learn only one defense the next week. I knew what was going on."

Harrison played a different tune yesterday, insisting he knew the Ravens needed a tight end.

"The tight end they picked up was Daniel Wilcox," said Harrison, who was promptly scooped up by Pittsburgh in time for 2004 training camp. "We played in NFL Europe together, and he's still there. They obviously needed a tight end. I don't point fault at anybody. That's just part of the game - just like the Steelers cut me three times before the Ravens [did]. And here I am now."

Harrison, 6 feet, 242 pounds, has been exacting revenge by posting career performances against the Ravens.

The fifth-year linebacker has harassed the Ravens more than any other team, compiling 28 tackles, six sacks and four forced fumbles in just the past three meetings.

Harrison earned AFC Defensive Player of the Week honors for recording 10 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks, three forced fumbles, a recovered fumble and an interception in Pittsburgh's 38-7 victory Nov. 5, 2007.

He could have earned similar accolades in Week 4 this season when he collected 11 tackles, 2 1/2 sacks and a forced fumble. His strip of rookie quarterback Joe Flacco late in the third quarter and the subsequent 7-yard fumble return for a touchdown by teammate LaMarr Woodley contributed to the Steelers' 23-20 victory in overtime Sept. 29.

Harrison said he doesn't get amped up for the Ravens more than any other team, but comments by Pryce after last season's game in November ("That will never happen again in his life," Pryce said of Harrison's effort, "he knows that") did serve a purpose.

"Stuff like that motivates me," Harrison said. "It makes me want to prove somebody wrong."

Harrison certainly has the attention of Ravens coaches and offensive players. In some circles, Harrison is the leading candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. His 15 sacks rank third in the league behind the Miami Dolphins' Joey Porter (16 1/2 ) and the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware (16), and his seven forced fumbles lead the NFL.

"You've got to account for him," Ravens coach John Harbaugh said of Harrison. "They've got a lot of great players on defense, and you've got to know where they're all at. Obviously, the edges of their pass rush have been very productive for them, and it's a big part of their defense."

Named the starter after the Steelers parted ways with Porter in March 2007, Harrison has thrived in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's intricate zone blitzing defense, which disguises its pass rushers while dropping defensive ends into pass coverage.

"He's a very talented guy," Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin said. "He has great work ethic both on the field and off. He's got great football character, and when you put those things together with the guy being given an opportunity, it just warms your heart to see a guy take advantage of it and get the kind of recognition that he's getting and rightfully deserves."

Harrison, who usually lines up just outside the right defensive end, will likely match up against Ravens left offensive tackle Jared Gaither, who was limited in practice yesterday by an injured left shoulder. The Ravens could aid Gaither by chipping Harrison with a tight end or running back.

Harrison is a half-sack away from eclipsing Mike Merriweather's franchise record for most sacks in a season, but the Ravens hope to keep Merriweather's mark intact for one more week.

"He's been pretty disruptive, but we feel like we have the guys to match up against him," Flacco said. "I'm sure he'll make his plays during the game, but we're going to go out there and we're going to attack these guys. We're going to make sure that we're the guys attacking them and they're not coming after us."

STEELERS (10-3) @RAVENS (9-4)

Sunday, 4:15 p.m.

TV: Chs. 13, 9

Radio: 97.9 FM, 1090 AM

Line: Ravens by 2

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