Tuesday, September 27, 2011http://www.post-gazette.com/sports/
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Curtis Painter(notes) (7) fumbles after being hit by Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison(notes) (92) during the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in Indianapolis, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2011. (AP)
Linebacker James Harrison's surgically repaired back is starting to look strong enough to carry the Steelers defense. But it might have to carry a lot more. How about the entire team?
You should be thinking:
Heaven help Harrison find the strength.
It's no secret the offensive line has major issues. It lost starting tackle Willie Colon (torn triceps) in that horrible opening-game loss at Baltimore and was battered and bruised almost beyond recognition in the 23-20 win Sunday night at Indianapolis with injuries to tackles Jonathan Scott (ankle) and Marcus Gilbert (shoulder) and guard Doug Legursky (shoulder). It got so bad it looked as if tight end/H-back David Johnson might have to play tackle. "We were about to pull D-linemen over there to play O-line," quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
Scott's injury appeared to be most serious. Some of you probably are saying that's a good thing because he's so bad, but be careful what you wish for. Trai Essex was the next man up at tackle Sunday night. If the coaches thought he was better than Scott, he would have been starting. Flozell Adams saved the season last year. Could he do it again? Can the team re-sign him and fit him in under the salary cap?
Adams or no Adams, the Steelers need a quick solution or maybe just more miracles from offensive line coach Sean Kugler, who successfully plugged holes last season all the way to the Super Bowl. Roethlisberger, who was sacked three times by the Colts, can't continue to take a beating. He spent much of the game looking over his shoulder for defensive end Dwight Freeney, who owned Scott. The running game was nonexistent. Rashard Mendenhall had nowhere to go.
"It's going to be a scary film meeting with coach Kugs," Essex said.
Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau probably enjoyed grading the game tape a lot more. His guys won it for the Steelers. I know, they dominated a lame Colts offense that was without quarterback Peyton Manning, just as they dominated a horrible Seattle Seahawks offense without star wide receiver Sidney Rice the week before in a 21-0 win. I also know the defense will get a much tougher test Sunday in Houston against a Texans team that put up 34 points in a win against Indianapolis, 23 in a win against Miami and 33 in a loss Sunday to New Orleans.
Still, I liked what I saw from the defense Sunday night. Harrison was especially terrific. It was more than just his sack of Colts quarterback Curtis Painter late in the game, which resulted in a fumble and a touchdown for safety Troy Polamalu. It was his game-high seven tackles, including two for losses. He fought through tight end Dallas Clark to tackle running back Delone Carter for a 1-yard loss. He pushed back offensive tackle Anthony Castonzo into quarterback Kerry Collins and forced an incompletion. He closed quickly to tackle wide receiver Austin Collie for a 1-yard loss after a catch.
No one accused Harrison of being old and done after this performance. No one said he appeared to be "running in mud," as Steelers linebackers coach Keith Butler did in August.
"This was the best I've felt all season," Harrison said. "I feel like I'm getting a little better each week."
Harrison had two back surgeries in the offseason. He said he's in agony after a game. "I'm talking pain." By Wednesday, after taking painkilling medication, he's ready for the one practice a week with contact. There is more pain. "Then, by Saturday, I'm ready to go."
Teammates have a hard time believing Harrison isn't 100 percent again.
"I think he plays that back thing up a little bit," linebacker Larry Foote said, grinning. "If I saw him getting dogged or knocked back, then I might believe it. But all I see him do is dominate."
Polamalu also played his best game after being bothered by leg troubles late last season and into training camp this summer. "He was flying out there," Foote said. "That long hair was really flying ..." The fumble recovery and touchdown were huge. "That was a great play by James," Polamalu said. "I had a great front seat to it." Polamalu also broke up a couple of passes for Clark. He blitzed from the corner and blew through Carter to force a Collins incompletion. He spun around running back Joseph Addai to get pressure on Collins and force another incompletion. He knocked Addai back with a hard tackle.
"They make exciting plays when they need to," Roethlisberger said of Polamalu and Harrison. "I'm glad they're on my side."
The Steelers need the two, now more than ever. They need them to stay healthy. The defense is going to have to carry the team until the offense finds a way to solve its line problems. It might have to carry it for a long, long time.
Harrison's back had better hold up.
"It will," Foote said. "I mean, just look at him. Watch him play. Look at the tape. You can see how strong he is. No one on our team works harder. He loves his body. He's always working to make it stronger. He's a maniac."
Foote gets no argument here.
Harrison is all that and more.
He might just be the key to the rest of the Steelers season.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Vinnie and Cook" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan. More articles by this author