Many candidates, but MVP obvious

PITTSBURGH – For the NFL's No. 1 defense, it all starts by stopping the run. The Pittsburgh Steelers lead the NFL in run defense, and the key, many believe, is ...

... Aaron Smith.

With Smith in the starting lineup the last two years, the Steelers have allowed opposing rushers 3.1 yards per carry. Without Smith during the same time frame, the Steelers allowed 4.9 yards per carry.

Therefore, the media has concluded, Smith is the Steelers' Defensive MVP.

But didn't Troy Polamalu's absence and/or injury-related ineffectiveness contribute to last season's defensive collapse down the stretch?

Perhaps. Polamalu is back and the Steelers not only lead the NFL in run defense, they lead in pass defense, and red-zone defense, and fewest yards per game, and fewest yards per play.

Polamalu has been a catalyst in both the Steelers' run and pass defense. His interception in the second quarter of the opener sealed the win over Houston. He turned back another rally with a goal-line pick in the final first-half seconds of a 10-6 win in Cleveland. His third and fourth interceptions this season were tumbling and diving spectacles to behold. He's also Dick LeBeau's main chess piece because he can stuff the run and cover wide receivers. He's also the player parents most want their children to emulate.

Polamalu, therefore, must be the Steelers' Defensive MVP.

Of course, there's the defending team MVP. And James Harrison won't give up the throne easily – not in a year when the Steelers' Defensive MVP is likely to become the NFL's Defensive MVP.

"I've got my vote for James Harrison all the way," said Steelers defensive captain James Farrior.

Over Polamalu?

"Troy's coming in a close second," Farrior said.

Didn't everyone learn last year that Smith is the true MVP?

"Aaron's always the MVP in our minds," Farrior said. "But he's like a great third-party candidate: You don't vote for him because you know he won't win. I just think Deebo's pushing for a strong first place."

"Deebo" Harrison is also called "Silverback" by teammates, but right now, all of his names are spelled M-V-P.

"Hands down, it's James Harrison," said defensive tackle Chris Hoke. "Time after time he makes big plays. We were struggling a little bit Sunday, couldn't move the ball, and he goes out and gets two points. We can't move the ball at the end of the first half, he gets an interception. Every time we turn around he's making a big sack, a big play. He's a big-time leader, an emotional leader, because he's out there making plays. He's a big-time momentum-shifter, too."

Didn't Troy's once-in-a-lifetime interception against the Chargers change momentum?

"That was a great one," Hoke said. "But we went out there and went three and out, didn't we?"

Is Harrison also the Defensive MVP of the league?

"Right now he is," Hoke said. "He's a sack or two away from the leader in sacks, Peezy, and he has more tackles than him."

Harrison has 12 sacks, second to the guy he used to back up in Pittsburgh, Joey "Peezy" Porter, who has 13.5. Harrison has 67 tackles to Porter's 38, and has a safety, four passes defensed, four forced fumbles and an interception. Porter hasn't defended or intercepted a pass, but has forced three fumbles.

"Nothing away from Peezy," Hoke said as he leaned in and spoke into the tape recorder, "but James plays the run better. James is always stuffing the run. He's an all-around great player."

Isn't Peezy also an emotional leader?

"We have nothing but respect for James," Hoke said. "Every day he goes out there and works hard, does everything he can to get ready for the game. Goes in the game and backs it up. He's a leader."

A silent leader?

"Oh, he says stuff," Hoke said. "I think the funniest thing James ever said was when Coach (Bill) Cowher was here. I think he had a block in the back, Silverback did. And Coach Cowher came up to him and started yelling at him, and Silverback said, ‘(Expletive) happens.' Cowher was like, ‘I respect that.'"

In the three-man poll of Steelers defensive players, defensive end Brett Keisel made it a unanimous sweep by casting his vote for Team/League Defensive MVP to Harrison over Polamalu and Smith.

"That's, I think, what's made our defense so good this year," Keisel said. "We have so many guys that can make plays all over, not just up front, not just the linebackers, not just the secondary, all over. It's been a good year so far. We just want to continue it. But James Harrison has played better than anyone that we've watched this year."

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