"James Harrison continues to make splash play after splash play," Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin said.
That succinct quote sums up what opponents are finding out about the Steelers' most disruptive player. Harrison, who earned a Pro Bowl berth in his first season as a starter, has ravaged opponents on the way to 89 tackles, 15 sacks, seven forced fumbles, one interception, one safety and a fumble recovery. His versatility has made him an invaluable part of the Steelers' top-ranked defense, and his proclivity for making game-changing plays has earned him high praise from teammates and opponents alike.
"It's unbelievable what he does," Steelers defensive end Aaron Smith told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "I don't know how to describe it. Every time we need something, it seems like he comes up with it for us. ... I know there are some great players in this league, but find me someone else who does it with his consistency. Find me someone else who does it week in and week out the way that he does it."
The league's MVP award typically goes to an offensive player because of their ability to generate ridiculous numbers weekly, but Harrison's eye-popping stat line has thrust him squarely into contention. Playing in defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's aggressive 3-4, Harrison has become a force off the edge. Possessing an explosive first step and surprising power, he dominates offensive tackles on the way to punishing the quarterback. Harrison has 23 sacks in the past two seasons, and only three other rushers have exceeded that total in the same span (DeMarcus Ware, Jared Allen and Mario Williams).
More impressive, he has a league-high 14 forced fumbles the past two seasons, having mastered the art of the "strip" that was made famous by the last defensive player to win the MVP award (Lawrence Taylor in 1986).
"It's just something you get used to doing," Harrison told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "When you get to the quarterback, you want to try to sack and strip the ball."
With a host of title contenders seeking to prove that defense wins championships, this may be the year that defense also wins the league MVP award.
1. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (Ranking last week -- 3): The Pro Bowler has almost single-handedly resurrected the Vikings' title hopes. Peterson has led the team to seven wins in the past nine games by topping the century mark six times and rushing for six touchdowns.
2. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (4): The former two-time league MVP has the numbers and team success to merit strong consideration for the award. Warner ranks second in the league in passing yards, passer rating and touchdowns while guiding the Cards to their first-ever NFC West division title.
3. Peyton Manning, QB, Colts (NR): It is not a coincidence that the Colts are on a six-game winning streak now that Manning has rediscovered his rhythm. Since the team's last loss, the eight-time Pro Bowl QB has connected on over 68 percent of his throws with 12 touchdowns and only three interceptions.
4. Eli Manning, QB, Giants (1): For only the second time this season, Manning failed to deliver with timely playmaking in the clutch. With Brandon Jacobs nursing a knee injury and their top receiving threat done for the season, the time is right for Manning to reveal his greatness.
5. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (NR)
1. Drew Brees, QB, Saints (1): He continues to take dead aim at Dan Marino's single-season passing mark (5,084). Brees has eight 300-yard passing games and a league-high 26 touchdown passes.
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Vikings (3)
3. Kurt Warner, QB, Cardinals (2)
4. Michael Turner, RB, Falcons (5): The league's second-leading rusher has been outstanding in his first season in Atlanta. Turner is the league's co-leader (LenDale White) in rushing touchdowns with 14.
5. Jay Cutler, QB, Broncos (NR): The Broncos' gunslinger has been forced to put the team on his back due to a non-existent running game and porous defense. With over 3,600 passing yards and 23 touchdowns, the third-year pro is proving that he is up to the challenge.
1. James Harrison, LB, Steelers (1)
2. Albert Haynesworth, DT, Titans (2): The mammoth Pro Bowl tackle anchors the middle of the Titans' third-ranked defense. Haynesworth not only clogs the middle against the run, but his exceptional rush skills have keyed a pass rush that has generated the seventh-most sacks in the league (35).
3. Troy Polamalu, S, Steelers (3): The league leader in interceptions (7) continues to come up with big plays for the Steelers' suffocating defense. When the three-time Pro Bowl safety is not picking off passes, he is helping the team limit runners to a league-low 3.2 yards per carry.
4. Joey Porter, LB, Dolphins (NR): The loquacious three-time Pro Bowl linebacker has been dominant for the surprising Dolphins. Porter's ability to put consistent pressure on the quarterback has led the team to six wins in the past seven games. He leads the league with 16.5 sacks.
5. Ed Reed, S, Ravens (NR): The quintessential playmaker continues to deliver game-changing plays for the Ravens. The former Defensive Player of the Year's 22-yard fumble return touchdown against the Redskins was his third defensive score of the season, and his two interceptions increased his season total to five.
1. Jeff Fisher, Titans (1): The Titans have ended the Colts' five-year reign over the AFC South, and Tennessee should have the road to the Super Bowl running through Nashville.
2. John Harbaugh, Ravens (4): The Ravens' blueprint for winning games is eerily similar to the game plan that brought the franchise a Super Bowl title in 2000.
3. Tony Sparano, Dolphins (NR): The Dolphins are poised to go from laughingstocks to division champs in Sparano's first season.
4. Mike Smith, Falcons (3): The Falcons' surprising ascension to playoff contention boosts Smith's case. Not even the most optimistic of Falcons' followers could've expected such a sudden turnaround for the franchise.
5. Tom Coughlin, Giants (2): The Giants have been the NFC's best team all season. The no-nonsense coach has pushed all of the right buttons in making this team into a champion, and will continue to do so with the pressure mounting down the stretch.
1. Matt Ryan, QB, Falcons (1): The Falcons' star has been so sensational that his name is already etched on the trophy with three weeks to go.
2. Matt Forte, RB, Bears (2): The rookie sensation has amassed at least 100 yards from scrimmage in six consecutive games. He's the league's sixth-leading rusher and is the leading receiver among running backs with 53 catches.
3. Chris Johnson, RB, Titans (3): The AFC's second-leading rusher topped the 100-yard mark for the second consecutive week, and for the fourth time this season.
4. Joe Flacco, QB, Ravens (4): The Ravens' young leader has thrown at least one touchdown in eight consecutive games while leading the team to seven victories in those eight contests.
5. Steve Slaton, RB, Texans (5): The dazzling runner has been off the hook with three 100-yard rushing games in the last four weeks. Slaton's four runs over 40 yards lead the league, and he is the league's seventh-leading rusher with 1,024 yards.
1. Jerod Mayo, LB, Patriots (1): The Patriots' star linebacker leads all rookies in tackles (103) and is a lock to take home the defensive rookie honor at season's end.
2. Curtis Lofton, LB, Falcons (2): Though he doesn't make many standout plays, Lofton's consistency has allowed Keith Brooking and Michael Boley to roam freely off the edges.
3. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Cards (3): The Cards' burgeoning shut-down corner has been sensational since stepping into the lineup. Rodgers-Cromartie has picked off three passes, and leads all rookies with 18 passes defensed.
4. Kenny Phillips, S, Giants (5): The Giants' top pick has shown a strong nose for the ball whenever he has been in the game. Phillips' 60 tackles rank second on the team, and are the fifth-most stops of any rookie defender.
5. Chris Horton, S, Redskins (4): The 'Skins rookie safety has been a solid addition. His timely playmaking and knack for big hits has sparked the league's sixth-ranked defense.