NEW YORK -- James Harrison slams down the current version of the Steel Curtain better than any Pittsburgh Steeler, earning him The Associated Press 2008 Defensive Player of the Year award.
The linebacker had a career-high 16 sacks, setting a team record, and led the NFL with a career-high seven forced fumbles to beat out Dallas' DeMarcus Ware in balloting by a nationwide panel of 50 sports writers and broadcasters announced Monday. Pittsburgh's defense was the league's stingiest in total defense, pass defense and points allowed.
Harrison was its main hammer.
"That's something that everybody in the league would love to have, to be voted the top player in the league for that year," Harrison said. "In my mind, I think I do -- and it's going to sound boring -- what the defense allows me to do and what my teammates allow me to do."
Harrison earned 22 votes to 13 for Ware.
Baltimore safety Ed Reed, the 2004 winner, got eight votes. Tennessee defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth had five and Harrison's teammate, safety Troy Polamalu, got two.
Harrison credited defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's schemes with allowing him, an undrafted free agent from Kent State who was cut several times by Pittsburgh and once by Baltimore, to eventually become a star.
"The defense is built to play with 11 guys, and if all 11 guys are on the same page, playing the same defense on the same play, there's nothing that can go wrong and that's just how we feel about it," Harrison said.
But fellow linebacker James Farrior, who has seen Harrison develop from a backup to Joey Porter into one of the game's biggest playmakers, sees Harrison as the key.
"His whole attitude about football, I think he works harder than anybody else in this locker room," Farrior said. "He has a great work ethic. He's very tuned in to what he has to do to make himself better. That's all he strives for, to try to be better than anybody else, and you can see his determination when he's out there on the field.
"We've got good players on this team, and every team has good players, but he seems to be -- this year and last year -- making the plays that made the difference in the game."
Harrison is the fifth Steeler to win the award, including three Hall of Famers from the original Steel Curtain: Joe Greene (1974), Mel Blount (1975) and Jack Lambert (1976). In 1993, Rod Woodson was AP Defensive Player of the Year, and he is eligible for the Hall for the first time this year.
The Steelers did not allow a 100-yard rusher or 300-yard passer in 2008. Harrison didn't limit his work to that stingy unit, though: He also had 12 special teams tackles.
"People said I couldn't do this or couldn't do that," he noted. "I was too short, too slow. Basically, I play and prepare myself in the offseason with the thoughts of what people said I couldn't do."
And he's proven he can do just about everything.
Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press