Hard-hitting Harrison has been a knockout for Patriots

Right from start, safety gave defense an attitude

January 16, 2004|By Brent Jones | Brent Jones,SUN STAFF

First there was a head-butt to receiver Troy Brown. Two days later came a neck-high takedown on running back Kevin Faulk.

Finally, with his professional wresting tactics bringing tensions to a boiling point, safety Rodney Harrison, a 10-year veteran who was in his first training camp with his new team, the New England Patriots, managed to pit the starting offense against the starting defense in an all-out battle. This came after offensive tackle Matt Light, and many of his fellow offensive teammates, had had enough of Harrison.

Light grabbed Harrison by his face mask, and Harrison returned the favor. Then came the pushing and shoving. Things got so rough that linebacker Tedy Bruschi jumped into the pile of players as if he were leaping into the end zone for a touchdown.

It was the worst scenario come true for the Patriots, who knew of Harrison's reputation as one of the league's premier cheap-shot artists, a player who reportedly has been fined nearly $300,000 in his career.

And it also proved to be one of the best revelations for the Patriots (15-2), who will play host to the Indianapolis Colts (14-4) on Sunday in the AFC championship game.

"We've always had an attitude," said linebacker Ted Johnson, "but he brings an attitude. And he's very much a professional about it. He doesn't have a sense of entitlement. He worked for everything he has.

"As a defensive player, we were thrilled to have him playing like he was. That's football. That's just the way he plays, and he'll never change. Why should he?"

In fact, it was a premeditated effort on Harrison's part to serve notice to his new team that he had not, as some whispers in the NFL circles suggested, lost a step.

"I was trying to be physical and show them I can play," said Harrison, 31, who spent the previous nine seasons in San Diego.

"I had a chip on my shoulder because everyone said I couldn't play. So I said I'm going to knock somebody out and stir up some ruckus to let them know I'm ready to go."

Harrison was ready then and has been throughout the Patriots' current 13-game winning streak. He had 125 tackles in the regular season, while also recording three interceptions and three sacks.

After the rocky start, Harrison's play won over his teammates, and he was voted team captain after a couple of games. He was a big part of a revamped secondary that led the NFL in interceptions (29), lowest quarterback rating against (56.2) and fewest touchdowns allowed (11).

The knock on Harrison - and one of the reasons the Patriots' decision to give him a six-year, $14 million contract with a $2.5 million signing bonus came as a minor surprise - was his range in pass coverage.

But Harrison made one of the biggest plays in New England's 17-14 win over the Tennessee Titans in the AFC semifinals.

With just under four minutes left in the first quarter and the score tied 7-7, Harrison sealed off tight end Shad Meier along the sideline and intercepted quarterback Steve McNair at the Patriots' 36.

Harrison's interception sparked an 11-play drive that ended in a 1-yard touchdown run by Antowain Smith.

This season, the Patriots have asked everything from blitzing, to matching up one-on-one with tight ends, to making the defensive calls, to being an intimidator if opposing receivers come across the middle from Harrison.

They will need him and the rest of the secondary, with four players who were not on the team last year, to play the best they have all season to slow down Colts quarterback Peyton Manning.

"Rodney Harrison is a good football player from A to Z," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said. "He's a pro on the field and off the field. His ability to play in all situations - run, pass, blitz, tackle, special teams when he has been asked to do that - he is a complete player."

Said Patriots Pro Bowl cornerback Ty Law: "He's a physical presence. And he's taking the role as the leader of the secondary, making all the calls and taking [rookie free safety] Eugene Wilson under his wing."

Back in training camp, no one projected Harrison would have to teach a rookie how to play in the NFL on the fly. The original plan called for Harrison to play next to Lawyer Milloy, an eight-year veteran who had been one of the cornerstones of the Patriots' defense.

But Milloy and New England could not agree on a restructured contract heading into the season, and the Patriots cut him before the opener.

Harrison had the unpopular job of trying to fill the popular Milloy's position on the field and role as team leader off it.

With the exception of those rocky first few days of training camp, Harrison has.

"It was a lot of pressure," Harrison said of replacing Milloy. "How can you replace a guy like that? He was a four-time Pro Bowler, a guy that was tremendously loved by everyone. For me to try to replace him, I had to work extra hard.

"But guys saw the way I worked on the field and in the weight room. I was a respectable guy to those guys. Respect is something somebody doesn't give you. It's something you earn."

NFL playoffs

Sunday's conference finals Indianapolis at New Eng. (-3), 3 p.m., chs. 13, 9

Carolina at Philadelphia (-4) 6:45 p.m., chs. 45, 5

NFL playoffs

Conference championships

Sunday

AFC: Indianapolis (14-4) at New England (15-2) 3 p.m., chs. 13, 9. Line: N.E. by 3.

NFC: Carolina (13-5) at Philadelphia (13-4), 6:45 p.m., chs. 45, 5. Line: Phi. by 4.

Super Bowl

Feb. 1

At Houston, 6:25 p.m., chs. 13, 9

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