TAMPA, Fla. -- Go ahead, Arizona Cardinals. Pick your pass-rushing poison from the Pittsburgh Steelers.
If you want to focus on stopping James Harrison, fine. You've just given LaMarr Woodley a clearer path to the quarterback.
Perhaps it would make more sense to pay extra attention to Woodley, given that he is the first player in NFL history to register three consecutive multiple-sack playoff games, dating to last year. No problem. Kurt Warner, meet Mr. Harrison, the league's Defensive Player of the Year.
Having allowed the fewest yards in the NFL two years in a row, the Steelers' defense clearly has plenty going for it in the way of playmakers. But for opposing offenses, the most intimidating aspect of the unit's dominance has to be the pass-rushing prowess of Harrison and Woodley. Their 27.5 combined sacks in the regular season made them the most prolific sacking duo in team history.
"You couldn't ask for two better outside 'backers," nose tackle Casey Hampton said. "They're relentless, and they get after you. They're so big and physical, it's hard to stop them."
Added defensive tackle Chris Hoke: "They're really quick off the edge, and they're also strong and overpower a lot of offensive tackles. That's a great and deadly combination."
Harrison, who ranked fourth in the league with 16 sacks during the regular season and has picked up one in two playoff games, has something else going for him besides the ability to consistently put quarterbacks on the ground. He has a knack for stripping them of the ball, as evidenced by his NFL-leading seven forced fumbles.
Inside linebacker Larry Foote calls the strip sack Harrison's "platinum move" and attributes the success he has with it to two things. Harrison can blow past a blocker fast enough to have time to know exactly where the quarterback is holding the ball, and he also works on it in every practice. Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau points out that the 6-foot, 242-pound Harrison uses his relative lack of height to his advantage by often being able to get "underneath" taller offensive linemen while also making the most of his immense upper-body strength and constant full-throttle approach.
"He never stops on any play, never gives up in any game," LeBeau said.
The heightened sense of urgency with which Harrison plays no doubt comes from the fact he joined the Steelers as an undrafted free agent from Kent State in 2004 and was twice cut and re-signed. He became a full-time starter in 2007, after Joey Porter joined the Miami Dolphins in free agency, and led the Steelers with 8.5 sacks that season.
"I feel like every time I go out there that I have to prove that I'm good enough to be out there," Harrison said. "If you go out there believing everything that you've heard said about you or written about you, then you're trying to play on your legend, and that doesn't work very well."
Woodley and Harrison are quick to acknowledge that they have thrived from the talent and selflessness of those around them.
"It starts with those three big guys up front (Hampton, Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel) doing all the dirty work, keeping that quarterback in the pocket and allowing James and me to come off and get the sack," said Woodley, who joined the Steelers as a second-round draft pick from Michigan in 2007. "It's the cornerbacks locking down those receivers and having the quarterback holding the ball just another second. It's the (inside) linebackers covering the middle of the field. Those are the things that allow James and me to come in and get those big-time plays."
They also feed off of each other's success.
Woodley, who had 11.5 sacks during the regular season, is the first to acknowledge that the main reason he leads the Steelers in postseason sacks with four is because opponents are concentrating on keeping Harrison away from the quarterback. It's the same reason Woodley managed 7.5 more sacks in 2008 than he had as a rookie.
"That's big time," Woodley said. "Coming into the season, that's all I was thinking about. I knew a lot of teams were going to respect James Harrison because of the kind of season he was coming off of and him being a Pro Bowl guy. I knew it was up to me to step up and take a little bit of that pressure off of him."
Which, of course, means putting a lot of pressure on opposing passers.