Harrison pays back Ravens

Cast off to Europe, cut by visitors, linebacker sparks Steelers' defense

December 27, 2004|By Chuck Finder | Chuck Finder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PITTSBURGH - James Harrison carries his Ravens grudge with him to work daily, at his side. He carries it in the form of the tag on his duffel bag: Rhein Fire, No. 53, Harrison.

The Ravens were the ones who sent him to NFL Europe, an atrocious experience that lasted a forgettable month and a half and ended in an injured left knee and a decision that he would never go back to Germany "for love or money." The Ravens were the ones who, soon after his return to America, gave him his unceremonious release June 17.

Oh, and they unceremoniously released him to sign his Rhein teammate and tight end, Daniel Wilcox, who called to tell Harrison the signing news, only to find that his buddy's misfortune was the reason why.

You bet this Steelers linebacker was ready to vent.

"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 of his short stint with the Ravens. His anger helped explain how he hounded the Ravens for six tackles plus two batted passes - one that produced an interception and another on a crucial, last-ditch fourth-down attempt - and basically harried Kyle Boller all afternoon in a 20-7 Steelers triumph at Heinz Field yesterday.

"And then they had me learn only one defense the next week. I knew what was going on."

A funny thing happened to Harrison after he bade farewell to Baltimore, and vice versa. He languished for six weeks, preparing to finish work toward a degree at Kent State, where he was All-Mid-American Conference after compiling 15 sacks in his 2001 senior season. Then, on July 26, hours before camp opened, the Steelers called, but only because outside linebacker Clark Haggans broke some fingers while lifting weights.

It was Harrison's third go-around with the Steelers, who had dressed him off the practice squad for a Dec. 29, 2002, game and released him from their practice squad on Sept. 17, 2003. This time, though, Harrison made an impact in 2004 camp. He learned all four Steelers linebacker positions and provided considerable special teams support. He made six tackles in a surprise start - his first in the NFL - against his hometown Cleveland Browns on Nov. 14, when outside linebacker Joey Porter was ejected after a pre-game fracas.

Harrison wound up starting last week against the New York Giants, making five tackles and deflecting a pass in place of Haggans, who was sidelined with a groin pull.

But Baltimore was his game.

"He talked about it all week," said inside linebacker Larry Foote, who plays next to him in the Steelers' 3-4 alignment. "He wasn't there that long, but those coaches, they're going to see it on film. [Coach Brian] Billick's going to say, `That No. 92, didn't we have him?' He probably doesn't even know James' name. He wishes he did now."

Late in the first quarter, by the time Harrison already had twice tackled Jamal Lewis (14 carries for 26 yards) for 1-yard gains, he began planting himself in Boller's face and refused to budge. He tipped a third-down pass at the Steelers' 34-yard line and the football landed in Porter's arms, an interception.

In the second quarter, two plays after he corralled Lewis for an 8-yard loss, Harrison so abused backup tight end Darnell Dinkins on a rush flushing Boller from the pocket that Dinkins was called for holding. Hence, that Ravens' drive stalled at the 50. Boller later threw away a pass with less than a half-minute left in the half because of the dogged pursuit of No. 92.

In the fourth quarter came his most impressive plays of the day, back to back, with the Steelers trying to put the clamps on that 20-7 score. On third-and-four at the Steelers' 34, Harrison bull-rushed past Orlando Brown and forced Boller from the pocket, forcing the Ravens quarterback to throw away the ball.

On fourth-and-four, Harrison leaped over blocking back Chester Taylor and, with his left hand, forcefully snuffed a quick Boller pass headed toward the right flat. The ball flew 10 yards upfield. In volleyball, it would've been scored a kill.

"I knew I was high," said Harrison, who isn't exactly a towering linebacker at 6 feet, 242 pounds. "When I took off, my knee was as high as his head. I didn't know I could get that high."

Not bad for a fellow who, a week earlier at the Giants, mostly came off the field on passing downs for a rusher. Yesterday, the Steelers' coaches never removed him from the defensive play.

"They were yapping all week," Harrison said, referring in particular to a Terrell Suggs comment about the Ravens being the Steelers' kryptonite. "Their memories are real short. We've won six of the last eight [meetings]. You talk about kryptonite? That isn't very strong kryptonite."

If anything, maybe Harrison had the fire to the Ravens' fuel.

"That shows what I went through to get where I'm at," he said of the Rhein tag still on his bag, nine months later. "It reminds me I never want to go back there again."

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