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They're hard-hitting questions

ARLINGTON, Texas — No spotlight is brighter than the one that will shine Sunday at Cowboys Stadium.

And there is no cause the NFL has been more vocal about than player safety.

So it is ironic the NFL's poster boy for violent hits will be playing in this spotlight.

Steelers linebacker James Harrison will have opportunities to make Packers crumble. He will have chances to make millions of fans cringe and say "ooooohhh" in unison. And he will have occasion to make the blood of Commissioner Roger Goodell boil.

Goodell and his staff already have fined Harrison $100,000 for four hits that were deemed excessively violent this season. And in the process, Harrison has become known as the NFL's most violent player.

"He's as violent as they come," Packers offensive line coach Jerry Fontenot said. "There are big hitters out there, but because of his build and his attitude, he's so violent."

Harrison has not shied away from the title. He and his teammates seem to view the attention as something that could work to their advantage.

"It sends a message across the league," fellow linebacker LaMarr Woodley said. "They're worried James Harrison may be knocking them out when they come across the middle. Now they're thinking twice."

There was a place and time when Harrison's reputation clearly would have been a badge of honor.

Why, Harrison was the NFL's defensive player of the year just two seasons ago.

But that era seems to be over. This is the concussion era, and some consider Harrison an outlaw.

Harrison has used the Super Bowl stage to thumb his nose at Goodell and all his fines. He has invited the league to line the playing field with pillows. He has said the owners' push for an 18-game season is proof the league really cares little about player safety.

What he really has done, however, is invited more scrutiny Sunday.

More than ever, we will be watching Harrison in the Super Bowl. And so will referee Walt Anderson and his crew.

Numbers gamesStarks reality

Rookie running back James Starks has become a postseason force for the Packers, rushing for 263 yards in three games. His presence has made the Packers offense considerably more effective.

Even though the Packers averaged 3.8 yards per rush in the regular season and 3.7 yards in the playoffs, their reliance on the run has changed. After running the ball 44 percent of the time in their first 16 games, they have run it 50 percent of the time in their last three.

Their rushing yards have improved slightly, from 100.3 per game to 118. The tradeoff has been passing yards are down slightly, from 257.7 to 251.

But the payoff has been in two areas: time of possession and scoring. The Packers have held the ball for an average of 34 minutes, 48 seconds in their last three games, compared with 31:36 in their previous games. And they have averaged 30 points in the playoffs compared with 19.2 during the regular season.

The numbers are skewed because of the Packers' 48-point outburst against the Falcons, but that outburst might not have happened if the Falcons didn't have Starks to worry about.

Front office chessFree agent caution

The Packers and Steelers are two reasons you shouldn't get too enamored with free agents. Neither team usually is a player in the free agent market, and both are better because of it.

The Packers have only two players on their roster they signed as unrestricted free agents — cornerback Charles Woodson and defensive end Ryan Pickett. And they signed both four years ago.

The Steelers have four unrestricted free agents — linebackers James Farrior and Keyaron Fox, safety Ryan Clark and running back Mewelde Moore. They don't have one who was picked up in the last two offseasons.

Packers general manager Ted Thompson believes the best way to build a team is through the draft, as does Steelers director of football operations Kevin Colbert.

"The Steelers are one of the examples people try to follow in terms of drafting well, being careful about what they are doing contractwise and developing their own players," Thompson said. "It makes sense. It makes sense for General Motors to do that, bring in employees, develop them, try to get them to be better. It's common sense."

Thompson does not consider himself anti-free agency.

"You try to evaluate players and their role and what they will do on your team if you were to sign them," he said. "You have to weigh that against the cost. Something that's overlooked is what does that do to the locker room if you bring in someone from the outside? He's making a lot more than the guy who already has been there and has been a contributor. … I do think it's something you have to do carefully."

Comprehend the trend Super Bowl QBs

Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger will be passing in rarefied air Sunday. He will play in his third Super Bowl.

Roethlisberger will be just the 10th quarterback to start in at least three Super Bowls. One — John Elway — started five. Four others — Terry Bradshaw, Joe Montana, Jim Kelly and Roger Staubach — started four. Troy Aikman, Tom Brady, Fran Tarkenton and Kurt Warner have three apiece.

Of that group, the only two other than Roethlisberger who are not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame are Brady and Warner, neither of whom is eligible yet.

Roethlisberger has a chance to have a 3-0 Super Bowl record. The only others with three Super Bowl victories are Aikman (3-0), Bradshaw (4-0), Brady (3-1) and Montana (4-0).

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