PITTSBURGH (WFAN/AP) — Troy Polamalu and James Harrison are marquee stars. They’re the ones who draw headlines for the Pittsburgh Steelers’ ferocious defense.
It’s James Farrior who sets the tone.
Fourteen seasons into his NFL career, the linebacker has come full circle in Pittsburgh. The former first-round draft pick of the New York Jets has morphed into the Steelers’ sage veteran in his seventh year as captain.
“Our unquestioned leader is James Farrior,” coach Mike Tomlin said without hesitation this week. “If you polled anybody, player or coach, equipment man or receptionist, they realize he sets the tone for this outfit.”
An outfit that is one game shy from another trip to the Super Bowl. And that one game just happens to be against Farrior’s former team.
After all, he’s been a Steeler now for nine seasons. That’s an eternity in the NFL. He’s as much a part of Pittsburgh as the bridges that crisscross the city.
“I am so far removed from being with the Jets. I really don’t even think about it anymore,” Farrior said. “We’re just happy to be here in the AFC championship game. I don’t think it would have mattered who we would have played.”
Well, the Steelers (13-4) drew the Jets (13-5), a team that beat them in the regular season.
Farrior remembers, of course. How could he not? He has started all 16 regular-season games each of the last five seasons. His 137 tackles this season were second on the team to teammate Lawrence Timmons (149), and Farrior led the team in tackles at one point for seven consecutive years (2003-09).
Not bad, but there’s more. He has 96 career playoff tackles in 16 games — equivalent in length to a full regular season. But it hasn’t always been fun in the postseason. Farrior’s first three career playoff games were with the Jets, and one game with New York still haunts him: the 1998 AFC title game.
Denver Broncos 23, Jets 10.
“We took an early lead, 10-0 at halftime. It seemed like the wheels fell off in the second half,” Farrior said. “That was a rough game.”
It was also an unsettling period for the Jets organization. Farrior, in fact, went through three head coaches in his five years there. Contrast that to the Steelers, the NFL standard for franchise stability, where Tomlin is Pittsburgh’s third head coach since 1969.
“Once I got here, I felt like everything was stable,” Farrior said. “The Rooney Family does a great job of getting people in here to fit within the Steeler mold.”
And it’s clear that Farrior fits.
“I don’t know how to explain it. He’s just a guy that you want to be around,” linebacker Stevenson Sylvester said. “James, he gets you going, the kind of leader you can really bond with, your friend and your coach at the same time. When you need influence, you go to him, some guy you just want on your side in a fight.”
After playing outside linebacker with the Jets, Farrior moved inside in Pittsburgh. And Tomlin probably knew Farrior would thrive as a hitter in the middle because, well, he’s been on the receiving end before. Back in their college days, when Farrior was at Virginia and Tomlin, a receiver, was at William & Mary, Tomlin tried to stop Farrior on an interception return.
It didn’t go so well.
“I tackled him once,” Tomlin said. “Needless to say, something bad happened if I was tackling James Farrior.”
But it’s that mental and physical toughness that Farrior has that’s allowed him to play so many games over so many seasons, no matter the position. The only game that matters to him now, though, is Sunday’s. And his most immediate concern in that game is stopping Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who led New York to a 22-17 win at Heinz Field last month.
“(He) did a great job,” Farrior said. “That is going to be the key to this game. Getting pressure on him and forcing him into third-and-long situations and making him win the game.”
Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.