As the Steelers prepare to start their murderer's row of games to end the 2008 season, they stand as champions of the defensive trifecta - league leaders in total defense (235.4 yards per game), passing defense (168.8) and rushing defense (66.5).
No one has been a quieter key contributor to this overall domination than inside linebacker James Farrior.
He's so underrated, he's not even considered the most underrated defender on the Steelers' team. Not to take away anything from defensive end Aaron Smith, but Potsie (an affectionate nickname given to Farrior based on the theory that he has something of a resemblance to the character in Happy Days) is instrumental in the team's success against the run (four tackles for loss) and the pass (four passes defensed).
The 2007 season was the first time since 2004 he did not lead the team in tackles, and he's missed a total of four games since joining the Steelers in 2002. He also has 17.5 sacks in his past 43 games.
Perhaps more than anything, though, his two greatest abilities are his pass coverage and his knack for setting up the outside rushers. Farrior disguises blitzes very well, and can collapse the pocket from the center to the outside, thus loosening up double-teams on the outside linebackers. Overall, he makes every member of their defense better.
With the added dimension of being able to attack straight ahead along with his sideline-to-sideline savvy and quickness, Farrior is truly the straw that stirs the drink of the best front seven in the game.
Just ask James Harrison and LaMarr Woodley how valuable Farrior is. The Steelers outside 'backers are about to break the franchise's record for sacks by linebackers - 24, set by Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene in 1994 and Jason Gildon and Joey Porter in 2000. Harrison and Woodley have 22.5.
Ask soon-to-be-All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu about Farrior's impact. The more Potsie is able to handle in coverage of the flats, the more Polamalu can disguise his own intentions on the play. Polamalu, the team's biggest playmaker, is at his best against the run and in the box. When Farrior is able to handle coverage and run responsibility behind him, Polamalu is able to freelance more and make plays.
This philosophy will be instrumental if the Steelers are going to reverse a recent trend of losing at New England. Expect Patriots quarterback Matt Cassel to have the ball in his hands for two seconds or less on each passing attempt - their passing attack will be quick and rhythmic, trying to set up the deep ball. The Steelers will have to lock the quicker Polamalu on Wes Welker, the Patriots main receiver who gets a reception once every five pass attempts, when he's in the slot. Farrior will likely be locked on Kevin Faulk in the passing game. Faulk has been vital in the Patriots' passing game this year, so Farrior must contain him in order to give the pass rush time to get to Cassel. Defensive success in this game hinges on Farrior's ability to take pressure off of Polamalu in his tough match-up, and to help keep the ball in Cassel's hands so their other-world edge rushers can do their thing.
Judging by Farrior's career in Pittsburgh, he'll do what he usually does; make everyone else around him, and the team, a lot better.