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Meet hard-hitting linebacker James Harrison

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Neil Reynolds | 14:18 UK time, Thursday, 16 December 2010

The sputtering New York Jets have little reason for festive cheer this weekend, as they prepare to take on a dominant Pittsburgh Steelers defence led by one of the more controversial hitmen in the NFL today in James Harrison.

Harrison is known to dish out the occasional dodgy tackle like Roy Keane in his prime and he boasts the kind of nasty streak that makes Joey Barton look like a choirboy. That is not the kind of combination you would take home to meet your mother!

He is also prone to making outlandish comments on a regular basis. He twice refused to attend Super Bowl celebrations at the White House as Presidents Bush and Obama only invited the Steelers because they were winners.

The Pro Bowl outside linebacker has been a busy boy this season. He has been every quarterback's worst nightmare, cementing his status as one of the best pass-rushing threats in the NFL with 10 sacks. When you look at that aspect of his game, there are few who have been better over the past three or four years.

James Harrison's tackle on Mohamed Massaquoi landed him a £48,000 fine. Photo: AP

James Harrison's tackle on Mohamed Massaquoi landed him a £48,000 fine. Photo: AP

But Harrison, who has even delivered big blows to fans in recent years (available on YouTube), has also come under intense scrutiny from the league office for continued helmet-to-helmet hits which have either left opponents dizzy and reeling or literally out for the count on the field.

In one game against the Cleveland Browns earlier this season, Harrison delivered a high tackle on Mohamed Massaquoi and followed that up later in the same game by knocking Joshua Cribbs unconscious with another dangerous hit.

That led to one of the most ridiculous comments in recent sports history when Harrison said he "didn't want to injure opponents but just put them to sleep for a little while."

Harrison has been fined four times this season for a total of $125,000 (£80,000) and as he is determined not to change his aggressive style, I can see more financial punishment coming in the future.

The former NFL Europe star claims he is being victimised by the league office and their officials on Sundays. But I would argue he has deserved every one of his fines to date, having dished out such questionable hits in a time of heightened awareness of head injuries in the NFL.

The Steelers will publicly support their man, of course, and will also reiterate each and every weekend that player safety in the NFL is an absolute priority. But if he is completely honest with himself, head coach Mike Tomlin is probably loving the fact Harrison is so wound up by all the fines coming out of his pay packet this season.

Harrison is certainly an angry man right now and I think he plays his best football when he feels the world and his wife are against him. The Steelers would be wise to tap into that anger for the remainder of the 2010 campaign.

The target of that anger this Sunday night will be the Jets who, at the start of this season, were talking a good game, having been the focus of national media attention over the summer.

Colourful head coach Rex Ryan and his band of merry men were the subject of the highly-acclaimed, fly-on-the-wall Hard Knocks series and in that show they were happy to portray themselves as the best team this year.

When New York opened the year with nine wins and just two losses, there were some who were willing to believe Ryan's proclamation. There were others who pointed to the fact the Jets had laboured to what should have been relatively comfortable wins over the Detroit Lions, Cleveland Browns and Houston Texans, suggesting this team talked a much better game than they played.

The non-believers will be patting themselves smugly on the back following the past couple of weeks.

The Jets have been awful, scoring just nine points in embarrassing division losses to the New England Patriots (45-3) and Miami Dolphins (10-6). Those defeats dropped the Big Apple outfit back into the pack with just three weeks of the regular season remaining and they are, by no means, guaranteed of what once looked like a nailed-on playoff berth.

And it leaves Ryan with this sobering thought - in 13 outings this season his club has only twice beaten a team that currently boasts a winning record.

Pittsburgh are going to be one of the tougher teams to knock out of the January playoffs as they are physical on both sides of the ball.

But it is that Harrison-led defence - which also features playmakers in the form of outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley and long-haired, hard-hitting safety Troy Polamalu - that will give the Jets a real headache on Sunday.

Mark Sanchez has struggled badly in recent games. Photo: AP

Mark Sanchez has struggled badly in recent games. Photo: AP

Mark Sanchez is struggling at quarterback for the Jets and is low on confidence. That is not the best time to be facing an angry pass-rusher like Harrison and a swarming Pittsburgh defence.

The Steelers are playing the better football of these two teams at the moment and I fancy them to inflict further misery on the slumping Jets. I don't mind if Harrison has a big game (I actually think he is exciting to watch), I just wish he would play within the rules and keep his mouth shut a bit more.

If he doesn't, he might be making another charitable donation at Christmas, thanks to a timely intervention from the NFL's disciplinary department.

Week 15 on BBC 5 live sports extra

Before the Jets-Steelers showdown, Arlo White and I will bring listeners the first part of our double-header from 1745 GMT on Sunday. And it is a real cracker as the New Orleans Saints visit the Baltimore Ravens.

The defending Super Bowl champion Saints have quietly won six games in a row and it's about time we all started seriously considering them repeating their 2009 success in Texas in February.

Any team that features offensive weaponry in the form of quarterback Drew Brees, running back Reggie Bush and wide receivers Marques Colston and Lance Moore has a chance to win every game. And look at New Orleans' recent form - in their last five games they have scored 34, 34, 30, 34 and 31 points.

The Ravens have exciting weapons of their own in quarterback Joe Flacco, running back Ray Rice and wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Derrick Mason, but their Ray Lewis-led defence had a letdown last week against Houston and must rebound in a hurry against the Saints.

This has all the makings of a classic game and I just about give the edge to the Saints at the moment - but there is very little between two very good teams who will feature in the playoffs in January.


  • Comment number 1.

    Harrison...talented but cheap and has a weird idea of what it is to be a man.

  • Comment number 2.


    I take issue with several of your inflammatory and arguably inaccurate statements. I suppose it only makes sense that is an opinion based blog and not factually accountable journalism. Strange that your own "house rules" state that comments may be flagged or removed if they:

    Are considered likely to disrupt, provoke, attack or offend others

    And yet in this very article you antagonistically mention the very personal problems Harrison had with his wife. Furthermore, you connect that to the way he plays football. I've been working hard to protect this guy against many writers who are taking their own "cheap shots" at him in press or print. Do you know Mr. Harrison's personal history and how hard he has worked at getting into the league? Do you know how many setbacks he has overcome? There are scores of articles that label this man a thug or an animal. Yet, he plays the kind of hard hitting football that has, in the past, earned him enough praise from the league to be Defensive Player of the Year. You state that each and every one of his fines has been deserved. I flatly disagree and see very clear evidence that he has been made a patsy this season. As far as his comments about White House visits, I admire the courage of a man who states his opinion firmly and fairly. Perhaps he doesn't always find the most poetic prose for stating his opinions but what I took away from those statements were the idea that he was unimpressed with either President simply supporting a winning team as a fairweather fan. I'd love to see a head of state *not* pander and just be a lifelong fan of a team and freely admit their support in good times or bad.

    In closing, your personal history states that you've played a bit of football yourself. Perhaps a padded up meet and greet can be arranged between you and Mr. Harrison so you can run a few plays against him? You're attacking a man outside of his normal workplace, he should at least be able to return the favor.

  • Comment number 3.

    Saints-Ravens should be a really good game; for me, it's Ray Rice v Drew Brees. If the Ravens can get a big game out of Rice, that'll keep Brees off the field and give themselves a chance. But I lean Saints at the moment, their offensive is coming together and the problems the Ravens secondary had against Houston were not new ones.

    Jets-Steelers will be interesting in terms of seeing if either offense can get it going. The Steelers don't have a whole lot to boast about the last three weeks, but Big Ben is clearly giving them more than Sanchez is the Jets.

    Must ask though - I know last week was the Patriots thread - how good was Tom Brady last Sunday? It's easy to get carried away with these things, but in those conditions, against that defense... that was as good as it gets.

  • Comment number 4.


    As you say personal opinion, also I don't see as an attack mentioning Harrisons wife, thats just a generic english phrase. I also don't think all the hits have been illegal (cribbs for starters) or the fines merited, especially if you look at the raiders/steelers game and the smack to rothlesburger, certainly deserved more of a fine.

  • Comment number 5.

    Iam quite new to American football and was wondering who is the best team in the NFL at the minute?

  • Comment number 6.

    Neil, This blog post is about 4 weeks too late!! What happened to up to date journalism?

    As a young guy trying to break through into sports journalism, primarily through an excellent NFL knowledge, it's kind of annoying that the BBC is paying you for these out of date comments about player safety, and especially Harrison.

    You can see my NFL opinions etc on my blog:

    Or come discuss your NFL thoughts at, a forum for fans to have a good humoured NFL Debate.

    Frostbag, the best team in the NFL atm is the New England Patriots.

  • Comment number 7.

    Hello Neil,
    Can you explain how the (most entertaining team in NFL) New Orleans Saints with the 4th best overall record may end up missing out on the play-offs? Surely this cannot happen?
    I tried to get the locals to explain, to myself a recent Brit abroad to Louisiana, however it went over my head in much the same way as relegation concept went over theirs.

    PS the atmosphere in the Superdome is brilliant, especially when taking apart other teams. Almost as good as SPL football ;-)

  • Comment number 8.

    I agree that Harrison and others should be fined for diving into a tackle and spearing with the helmet. However, Harrison got fined two weeks ago for what the ref called "leading with the crown of the helmet". Replays from about 14 different angles showed that his face mask came to the chest of the QB as his arms wrapped him up. Harrison was vertical at the time of impact. The height difference (he was shorter than the QB) rendered the "forhead area" of his helmet to be under the chin strap of the QB's. That's football. What they really fined him for was being shorter than the QB. Ridiculous, yes, he's being singled out.

  • Comment number 9.

    The ludicrous (and inaccurate) point about the Jets "in 13 outings this season [having] only once beaten a team that currently boasts a winning record" should not be in the article.

    For one thing, 8 of their games came against teams without winning records and therefore offered no opportunity to improve that statistic and for another, they have two wins, beating the 7-6 Dolphins in Week 3, and four defeats (BAL, GB, @NE, MIA).

    They are also the only team amongst the 8-, 9- and 10-win pack to have no let-down losses against losing or .500 teams.

    Seems to be pile-on-the-Jets season in the media though, so I can understand how this made its way into the article.

  • Comment number 10.


    Easy, The AFC and NFC has 4 divisions. Top team from each division is in the play-offs. Then the two teams with the best records from all those 4 divisions of both the NFC and AFC will be in as "wild cards".

    New Orleans are in the same division as Atlanta who currently have the best record in the NFC at 11 and 2.

    New Orleans has 10 wins which although better than anybody else in the NFC only gives them a wild card berth at this time as they're in the same division as Atlanta.

    There's talk of changing it but not this year.

    St. Louis and Seattle are tied (with 6 and 7 losing records) for the lead in the NFC West!

  • Comment number 11.

    "But I would argue he has deserved every one of his fines to date..."

    Oh right? Including this vicious assault on Drew Brees?

    Don't make me laugh...

  • Comment number 12.

    It's pretty simple. The NFL have stated that they will not tolerate "tackles" that are helmet to helmet. Anyone flaunting this rule runs the risk of penalty and subsequent fine. Harrison may have, in the past, been rewarded or acclaimed for such play, but it is clear that times have changed and if he wants to be part of today's game, he must change too.
    As an ex-rugby player, I have to question the NFL description of tackling, which in many cases consists purely of a defender launching himself at his opponent, with no attempt to grasp with the arms. This kind of tackling almost naturally leads to head first contact.

  • Comment number 13.

    GunnerToby - why don't you work a bit harder and stop insulting people who have clearly worked hard to get where they are in that case? Linking to a childish NFL forum won't get you anywhere. Also, have you noticed that the Jets are playing the Steelers this weekend on BBC Radio? And that both teams are covered in the blog?

    It's intensely irritating that Neil gives the NFL some exposure in the UK yet people still come on here to moan. This blog clearly isn't just aimed at big NFL fans. If you're looking to get into journalism, you need to consider your target audience when you write.

    K4 - totally agree. Horrible to think that the 49ers have a legit chance of making the playoffs!

  • Comment number 14.

    I should also add that any kind of contact, either with the helmet or to the helmet of the quarterback, whilst he is still in the pocket, is also severely frowned upon. Unless, of course, the quarterback is Michael Vick or Ben Roethlisberger...

  • Comment number 15.


    They are both playing yes. Well done. Why not discuss something about the game that's a bit more accurate and current. Such as the Pittsburgh OL struggles, resulting in Roethlisberger racking up injuries and the O playing poorly. Or the fact that the D is lead by Polamalu, as evidenced by their terrible play on D last year when he was out.

    Why can i not make a statement about this article being off the mark and not quite on the right track? Are BBC guys not open to criticism?

    Also, don't see how linking a friendly forum has anything to do with my desire to do this job.

    But anyway, each to their own. I expect a close Steelers win, around the 17-14 mark. Will be a good game (is on sky for those wanting to watch)

  • Comment number 16.

    Personally the demise of the Jets and the mess created by the tripping scandal and Sal Alosi is a far more interesting topic. Paritcularly at this time of year when we have two playoff bound teams with sputtering offences.

    I'm not a fan of Harrision but have admiration for the amount of setbacks he's come through to become one of the top defensive players in the NFL.

    I agree with many replies to this blog that he hasn't deserved all of his fines but the league has started fining players for hits that have been dangerous but are strictly legal. It's something that the competition committee will have to evaluate but someone like Harrison will always be lower than the player he's tackling and his fantastic technique will put him in a position where his helmet will be hitting the offense player's chin.

    This is the NFL with some of the fastest atheletes in the world and the collision speeds can be around 30 mph; it will always be dangerous. Harrison is a victim of the system because of his height and the way he was taught to tackle. He's not innocent by any means but the NFL's definition of dangerous tackles and fineable tackles is still ambiguous at this point.

  • Comment number 17.

    Been up all night watching the disaster in Perth. It's going about as well as the 49ers were tonight!

    The players are victims of a sudden and severe policy change from the NFL. All of a sudden they're heavily promoting player safety, which is admirable. But it's been installed at various points through out the season, what is legal and what isn't has changed during the season. Making it impossible for players to keep up.

    Harrison, and all of the Steelers D, plays on the very edge of what is allowed, it's what has made them such a dominating defense through out the franchise history. It's in the DNA of the ball club. Now this means, from time to they'll do something that crosses the line. But Harrison has been targeted.

    His hit on Cribbs looked nasty, but when you dissect that play it's clear what happens. Cribbs gets wrapped up by James Farrior just before Harrison comes in from the side. This results in Cribbs lowering his body as he tries to pull out of the tackle and slowing down. This puts his head into the line Harrison is coming on. A tackle that would have been flush in the chest without the play by Farrior ends up on the side of the head and it looks horrible. There's no intent in it, and no malice at all.

    Harrison didn't do himself any favours with the "i just want to put them to sleep" comment, but he's no PR expert, he's a Linebacker who's been taught that it's good to hit hard and hurt the opponent.

    Hopefully the whole area of Helmet-to-Helmet hits will be cleared up in the off season and stop things such as the Austin Collie collision against Philly resulting in flags and fines that have every NFL fan I know ranting at the TV saying "That's football, injuries happen".

    Rant over, just like the England innings... Mitchell Johnson was amazing.

  • Comment number 18.

    Cheers Gunner Toby, are the Steelers in a Playoff Atm?

  • Comment number 19.


    Do you really think a non-NFL fan is going to read a blog about the Steelers OL struggles? Think of the target audience.

    You can criticise whoever you like, but think before you type. 1) The BBC have Jets v Steelers live this week and 2) Harrison is an interesting topic for non-NFL fans as well as NFL fans.

    It's irritating that some 'hardcore' NFL fans can't understand the simple aim of this blog. I want more people to enjoy this great sport, and Neil's blog is doing a great job of bringing us interest.

  • Comment number 20.

    MistaRuddy... The world and his wife is a phrase... it does not literally mean the whole world and James Harrison's wife. As for me criticising someone I have never played against, this would be a pretty boring column if I could only write about people I have shared a field with. With all due respect to the teams I played for and against, I don't think anyone wants to read about the Medway Mustangs and Invicta Eagles.

    The Same Eddie George... Tom BRady is playing at a ridiculous level right now - off the charts. He is clearly the MVP of this season.

    Iain... Sorry - that should have read two. I am so down on my own Miami Dolphins I overlooked their winning record. My point remains though - the Jets are in trouble.

    GunnerToby... It may be frustrating for you to read about James Harrison when you would rather get into the interior of the Steelers offensive line but, as someone else pointed out, the art of being a journalist is to write to a brief. That is the aim of this column - to bring new people into the sport and also cater for existing fans. It is a fine line to tread at times. I hope I bring something to what is clearly a knowledgeable and passionate group of fans - but I also have to grab the attention of casual sports fans. THat's why James Harrison is labelled as the hardest hitter in the NFL (he may not even be that but it grabs your attention) and he gets compared to other UK sportsmen to give some context to fans who have never heard of him. I try to do this without dumbing things down too much but sometimes you will just have to bear with me.

  • Comment number 21.

    Appreciate the comment Neil. Is actually rare that a writer responds to comments, so thank you.

    I understand the brief and appreciate you trying to bring more people to the sport.

    If you've got the time i'd like to hear your views on the potential lock out that's coming and how it might affect the game.

  • Comment number 22.

    Fining a millionaire a few thousand dollars is ridiculous. They should suspend such people for 3 or 4 games. Do we have to wait until gets paralysed ?


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