Will Haggans break from the shadows?

LATROBE – With Joey Porter coming back any day now from the Steelers' injury list, the reign of Clark Haggans as leader of the outside linebackers is coming to an end ... and what a fun reign it's been.

"Clark is definitely different," said inside linebacker Larry Foote. "That's the best way to describe him. He's definitely different."

Different? How?

"He's funny," Foote said.

Funny ha ha? Like a clown?

"Clark is always running to the ball and he's always falling and it gives you a good laugh," Foote said. "He always falls on his chest. He can't catch. He drops interceptions all the time. That's all he does. He can't catch and we always give him smack about it. Just the way he talks; he's really funny. Clark is definitely off."

So it's been an amusing reign as leader of the outside linebackers. Like the time earlier this week when Kendall Simmons surprised Haggans with a blindsiding, wind-sucking block. Or the time the next day when a rookie blew him a kiss and the two stared each other down like a couple of gunslingers waiting for either to twitch. Yeah, that kind of funny.

But there's more to Haggans's run this week at St. Vincent College. With Porter on the PUP list with a knee injury, Haggans has been the best pass-rusher for the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers. And with Porter out, Clark Haggans may, in fact, be the best pass-rushing linebacker in the NFL.

Porter led all linebackers with 10.5 sacks last season. Haggans was third with nine. Now the 29-year-old is healthy and in the prime of his life. At the run test, Haggans looked like a greyhound with his tiny waist and broad shoulders.

He may be in the best shape of his life and may in fact be looking at a season in which he breaks out from under Porter's shadow. This might be the year Haggans becomes known throughout the league as a guy who MUST be held in the Super Bowl if your team is going to come-from-behind in the fourth quarter to pull out a win.

"Oh, yeah," said Foote. "That was definitely a hold. I don't know why they were crying about that. That was plain as day."

But that's another story from a championship past, for this is Haggans's year, isn't it?

"I don't want to jinx myself," Haggans said. "My groin is better and I'm excited this year. Let's leave it at that."

Haggans is coming off his best season, in spite of missing three games with a groin/sports hernia injury that didn't fully heal until the Steelers' stretch run. Haggans finished with nine sacks, a 28 percent increase over his previous season high. He was also the team's best outside linebacker in the Super Bowl. He expects that with continued good health the momentum will carry over. The run test and his Herculean build are the early clues.

"I try to stay in shape year around, but I would say I'm in pretty good shape," Haggans said. "Now I'm trying to pace myself because I remember last year talking with [Bill] Cowher when I was hurt, talking about how sometimes you need to slow it down because I'm always trying to go and push myself and I've been getting hurt, so now I'm just trying to pace myself gradually instead of trying to blow it out every day. I have more of a plan now."

The plan this off-season included more running and more linebacker-specific conditioning, such as pass drops and cone drills for his footwork. The results are evident.

"He's ripped. He's a workout warrior," said Foote. "We work out a lot and he pushes me every day. He's full of energy. Even if he's tired and everybody's dog-beat, you know Clark will be giving it 110 percent. That's the type of guy he is off the field and on the field. That's Clark."

But in a funny way. Like that interception of Ben Roethlisberger during the first practice of training camp.

"I dropped it," Haggans said of what several reports termed an interception. "I pulled a Troy Polamalu. I had the ball and as soon as I took a stride – boop – it went off my leg, so everyone said, ‘You pulled a Troy.'"

Porter will be back soon. Everyone will know by the noise on the field, and Haggans will return to the shadows, an underrated yet valuable pass rusher for a team that has few.

"Clark's definitely underrated," Foote said. "I think last year he should've made the Pro Bowl. He had the numbers. And in the Super Bowl everyone saw how he was playing. Everybody knows the sack he had, the holding calls, the good pressure. He had a real good Super Bowl."

And he thinks he can have another one.

"We have something real special here," Haggans said. "Eventually we could win six, the first team ever, and that will echo for as long as football goes on in America."

And that's not funny ha ha, either.

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