PITTSBURGH — Steelers linebacker James Harrison states his objective matter-of-factly: He’s out to hurt any opposing player who roams into his vicinity.
If he sees players down on the turf – as he did Sunday when he sidelined Browns wide receivers Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi with concussion-causing hits only minutes apart – he knows he’s done his job.
“I don’t want to injure anybody,” Harrison said following Pittsburgh’s 28-10 victory. “There’s a big difference between being hurt and being injured. You get hurt, you shake it off and come back the next series or the next game. I try to hurt people.”
Harrison’s reputation as being one of the NFL’s nastiest players was enhanced when his leading-with-the-helmet hits on Joshua Cribbs and Mohamed Massaquoi left the Browns with just two healthy wide receivers for more than a half. Neither hit was penalized, although the NFL said Monday it is reviewing the hit on Massaquoi. The league determined Cribbs’ tackle was legal.
Harrison’s style of play is raising questions about whether it’s possible to stay within the rules, yet also play dirty. While the Browns weren’t especially critical of the hits following the game, tight end Benjamin Watson was more outspoken Monday.
“I hope the NFL does the max, whatever the max is, I hope they give it to him,” Watson said.
NFL vice president of football operations Ray Anderson told The Associated Press that the league could soon start suspending players for dangerous helmet-to-helmet hits. The NFL is emphasizing a reduction in football concussions, which can lead to dementia and brain disease.
The crown of Harrison’s helmet slammed into the left side of Cribbs’ helmet as the wide receiver was running a wildcat formation play, causing Cribbs to crumple face-first into the turf. He appeared to be momentarily knocked out. Because Cribbs was a runner, such helmet-to-helmet contact is permissible.
“I thought Cribbs was asleep,” Harrison said. “A hit like that geeks you up, especially when you find out the guy is not really hurt, he’s just sleeping. He’s knocked out but he’s going to be OK.”
Harrison struck Massaquoi with his helmet as he rammed his right forearm and shoulder into the wide receiver to break up a pass. NFL rules now require a defender to give a receiver time to defend himself before he absorbs such a hit.
Harrison argued it would be a “travesty” if he was fined, and Steelers coach Mike Tomlin also said it was a legal hit. However, the outside linebacker has drawn fines in the past for his aggressive style of play.
He drew a $5,000 penalty for slamming Tennessee quarterback Vince Young to the turf Sept. 19, a play that also wasn’t penalized. Harrison also was fined $5,000 last season for unnecessary roughness following a late hit on Bengals tackle Andrew Whitworth. In 2008, he drew a $20,000 fine for criticizing a roughing-the-passer penalty against him.
The Steelers haven’t publicly discouraged Harrison from playing with an edge, believing it enhances their image as one of the NFL’s toughest, physical and most intimidating defenses. Following Sunday’s game, safety Ryan Clark called Harrison “an animal” and wide receiver Hines Ward termed him “a beast” – and both were being complimentary.
“You see a guy like that, knocking guys out like that … he’s a man on a mission,” Ward said. “He sets the tempo for everybody.”
Harrison said he doesn’t want to put any player out of a game or jeopardize his career. Still, the former AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year realizes it can be difficult to draw a line between merely hurting a player and badly injuring him as hits are being delivered so quickly, there’s no time to consider the consequences.
Tomlin appeared to suggest that younger players looking for a role model to copy for physical play might find him in Harrison, who was chosen as an AFC Pro Bowl starter the last three seasons.
“James is always ready to deliver for his teammates,” Tomlin said. “That’s why they have so much respect for him. He’s a good football player, man. He always delivers timely performances when you need them. Talking to a lot of young players, they want to know the recipe for being a dominant, great player. It’s not only delivering plays, but delivering plays at a timely manner – significant plays. And he does that for the most part.”
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