NEW YORK – Kent State once sent a linebacker to the Pittsburgh Steelers who epitomized everything the Steel Curtain was about. That was Jack Lambert. The current version of the hard-hitting, versatile and dynamic former Kent Stater in Steel City is James Harrison, The Associated Press 2008 Defensive Player of the Year.
This Nov. 30, 2008 file photo shows Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison moving in on New England Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel before stripping the ball while sacking him during the third quarter of an NFL football game in Foxborough, Mass.. The Steelers recovered the ball on the play. Harrison, the best player on the NFL's best defense, has won The Associated Press 2008 Defensive Player of the Year award, Monday Jan. 5, 2009.
(AP Photo/Winslow Townson)
The linebacker, who had a career-high 16 sacks to set a team record and led the NFL with a career-high seven forced fumbles, beat Dallas' DeMarcus Ware in balloting by a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters announced Monday. Pittsburgh was the league's stingiest in total defense, pass defense and points allowed. Harrison was its main hammer.
"That's something that everybody in the league would love to have, to be voted the top player in the league for that year," Harrison said. "In my mind, I think I do — and it's going to sound boring — what the defense allows me to do and what my teammates allow me to do."
Harrison earned 22 votes to 13 for Ware.
Baltimore safety Ed Reed, the 2004 winner, got eight votes. Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth had five and Harrison's teammate, safety Troy Polamalu, got two.
"It couldn't happen to a better guy," Steelers veteran receiver Hines Ward said. "He's worked his tail off to get to where he is. You appreciate it more, considering where he came from and how he got here."
Harrison credited defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's schemes with allowing him, an undrafted free agent who was cut several times by Pittsburgh and once by Baltimore, to eventually become a star.
"The defense is built to play with 11 guys, and if all 11 guys are on the same page, playing the same defense on the same play, there's nothing that can go wrong and that's just how we feel about it," Harrison said.
But fellow linebacker James Farrior, who has seen Harrison develop from a backup to Joey Porter into one of the game's biggest playmakers, sees Harrison as the key.
"His whole attitude about football, I think he works harder than anybody else in this locker room," Farrior said. "He has a great work ethic. He's very tuned in to what he has to do to make himself better. That's all he strives for, to try to be better than anybody else, and you can see his determination when he's out there on the field.
"We've got good players on this team, and every team has good players, but he seems to be — this year and last year — making the plays that made the difference in the game."
Harrison is the fifth Steelers player to win the award, including three Hall of Famers from the original Steel Curtain: Joe Greene (1974), Mel Blount (1975) and Lambert (1976). In 1993, Rod Woodson was AP Defensive Player of the Year, and he's eligible for the Hall for the first time this year.
The Steelers didn't allow a 100-yard rusher or 300-yard passer in 2008. Harrison didn't limit his work to that stingy unit, though: Harrison also had 12 special teams tackles.
"People said I couldn't do this or couldn't do that," he noted. "I was too short, too slow. Basically, I play and prepare myself in the offseason with the thoughts of what people said I couldn't do."
And he's proven he can do just about everything.