Steelers' Harrison Leads Brutish Defense

Jon Ledyard focuses on defense in his playoff notebook, but with one big question about leaving one big player in the game.

PITTSBURGH -- At 38 years old, many assumed James Harrison’s best days were behind him, and in a general sense that's true.

But the big guy flashed some bright sparks Sunday when the Steelers' veteran edge rusher dominated from kickoff to the final whistle, finishing the Steelers' 30-12 wild-card victory with 10 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 2 quarterback hits, one tackle-for-loss and a pivotal forced fumble that stymied a first-half offensive surge by the Miami Dolphins.

“That was huge,” said inside linebacker Ryan Shazier. “They definitely thought they were going to go into halftime with some points on the board. James, being a vet guy, made a vet play and really helped us go into halftime giving up no points there.”

“He’s the former Defensive Player of the Year,” said Lawrence Timmons. “Nothing surprised me. He’s been doing it for a long time for us. He shows everyone the 'Steeler Way' and you saw that out there today.”

Harrison’s game-changing sack came with 27 seconds left in the first half and Miami threatening to cut into Pittsburgh’s 20-6 lead with a 1st-and-goal at the 8-yard line. Unblocked off the edge, Harrison’s blindside hit on Matt Moore sent the ball bouncing away from the Dolphins quarterback and Stephon Tuitt eagerly scooped up the turnover to send Pittsburgh to the locker room with its 14-point lead intact.

“It was just a good disguise,” said Mike Tomlin. “That’s just the savviness of a guy like James. He showed coverage and rolled down late and came off the edge, and was unblocked because of it.”

- It was a day for defensive veterans to carry the team’s performance on that side of the ball, as Timmons capped his monster 14-tackle day with a pair of sacks on back-to-back plays to end the Dolphins' final scoring threat. Timmons added two tackles-for-loss and two additional quarterback hits, leading the way for a linebacking unit that has completely turned around its subpar play from early in the year. 

The other inside backer, Shazier, who didn’t play the last time these teams met, added six tackles and a big second-half interception.

- Bud Dupree’s exciting development continued, as the Steelers outside linebacker had six tackles, half a sack and two quarterback hits, one of which nearly ended Moore’s day in the first half.

Rolling right away from the pressure of Tuitt, Moore launched a pass downfield half-a-second before he was obliterated by Dupree, who came in hot from his coverage drop across the field. Dupree was flagged for the hit, and several Miami players came off the bench to confront the Steelers linebacker, leading to a flag on running back Jay Ajayi for unsportsmanlike conduct.

“I wasn’t trying to injure him, I was just trying to get the sack,” said Dupree. “Just trying to make a big play. He’s tough though, and him coming back in showed how much he wanted to win the game.”

- After being gashed for 222 yards on the ground during the regular-season meeting between the teams, the Steelers' defensive front dominated on Sunday, holding Ajayi to 33 yards on 16 carries. As a whole, the Dolphins rushed for only 52 yards, forcing Moore to lead the way offensively.

“Of course we want to stop the run,” said Tuitt. “This is the playoffs. If you watch any of the games, if somebody has 100 yards rushing, they are going to win. So we want to try to make a team as one-dimensional as possible. You have to be physical. You have to be detailed. You have to be able to be accountable for each other. And you have to want it more. We went out there today and that showed.”

Poor run defense by Steelers cornerbacks was a big part of the unit’s failures the last time out, but those mistakes were rectified on Sunday as Miami struggled to find room to run on the perimeter.

“We practiced that all week, making sure that we are good on the crack/replace,” said Ross Cockrell. “When you see yourself on film missing tackles, and not making the plays you can make, and you have another opportunity to prove yourself, you gotta take full advantage of it.”

One of the more insightful interview subjects, Cockrell had stripped off half his clothes when the media began to pelt him with questions at his locker, coming one after the other for a steady stretch. Cockrell gave each question his full attention despite shivering, visibly, from what he said was the coldest game in which he had ever played. A class act, and easily the most-improved player on the Steelers defense this season.

- Moore did some impressive things for Miami, but ultimately his three turnovers doomed the Dolphins. In addition to Harrison’s strip-sack, Mike Mitchelll’s blitz off the edge got home on Miami’s first drive of the third quarter. Mitchell knocked the ball loose from Moore’s grasp and into the mitts of L.T. Walton for the Steelers' second turnover of the game. Midway through the third quarter, with the Steelers holding a 23-6 lead, Shazier showed blitz and then dropped into coverage, intercepting Moore to set up Pittsburgh’s final touchdown of the game.

- While they didn’t execute flawlessly, the Steelers' fast start offensively threatened to send traveling Miami fans back to Florida early. Pittsburgh rolled up 219 yards of offense in the first quarter, 119 of which belonged to Antonio Brown, who took two short passes the distance to give the Steelers a 14-0 lead just eight minutes into the game. The unit scored on its first three drives of the game and jumping out to a 20-3 lead before Miami settled in on both sides of the ball. The hurry-up offense was effective, as Miami couldn’t match Pittsburgh’s execution or pace early on.

- It appeared the Steelers had escaped the game without major injury to any of their key players, despite foolishly playing Ben Roethlisberger and Brown the entire game. With the Steelers up 30-12 with 4 1/2 minutes remaining, Roethlisberger inexplicably dropped back to pass. He danced around the pocket before being dragged down from behind by Cameron Wake while throwing a careless interception. Roethlisberger’s right foot trapped beneath Wake’s body, twisting his ankle enough to result in a post-game walking boot for the veteran quarterback. 

Roethlisberger vowed to play against Kansas City next week, but even if he does take the field and isn't bothered by the injury, the incident again brings up the question of why Tomlin his star players in the game with insurmountable leads, and then throwing. If Roethlisberger isn’t himself against an excellent Kansas City Chiefs defense, or is unable to take practice reps this week, Tomlin will justifiably be criticized for gross misuse of personnel.


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