If James Harrison's first game against his former squad was different, weird or special in any way, the intense linebacker didn't let it show
CINCINNATI — When it was all over, and Bengals linebacker James Harrison had greeted former colleagues Dick LeBeau and Ben Roethlisberger, playing 13 snaps in between, he walked over to the Monday Night Football crew situated on the field in a corner of the stadium and greeted another linebacking icon. There was former Ravens great Ray Lewis, retired this year, wearing black leather shoes and a silver suit with wires running up through the collar and down his back—a member of the media now. And there was Harrison, his black and orange helmet without a scratch on it, having played for the first time against the team he won two Super Bowls with.
It was difficult to tell who was the most out of place; to judge the stranger costume.
Maybe Bengals wide receiver Dane Sanzenbacher summed it up best: “It had to be weird for him.”
The Bengals won the final game of the NFL season’s second week, a game that pitted Harrison, the 35-year-old ex-Steeler, against his old team. But, as evidenced by those 13 snaps, there wasn’t much opportunity for Harrison to actually play his former team. The Steelers were without tight end Heath Miller again as he recovers from knee surgery, meaning Pittsburgh would stick to wideout-heavy formations, necessitating plenty of two-linebacker nickel looks for Cincinnati. On a roster with Rey Maualuga and Vontaze Burfict coached by Mike Zimmer, that excludes Harrison, whose cover skills apparently haven’t inspired much confidence since the team signed him to a two-year, $4.45 million deal this offseason.
Asked in the locker room what the defense did to stymie Pittsburgh in a 20-10 victory, Harrison was succinct, “The guys that were out there, they played stout.”
He wasn’t bothered, just rushed. He was off to see LeBeau, the Steelers coordinator, following a media scrum. When asked for his feelings on LeBeau during a pre-show interview with ESPN’s Jon Gruden, Harrison took a long pause and said of the Hall of Famer, “I miss him.”
I asked him what he thought of Zimmer three weeks ago after the preseason finale.
“He has a certain amount of—how can I put it—pizazz,” Harrison said in August. “Or he has his own way of doing things and the way he likes to express his feeling. It’s just a little different. You’ve got six in one hand and half a dozen in the other. But he gets his point across and he’s a great coordinator.”
Harrison never strayed far from Zimmer Monday. He was the closest non-participant to the action, spending defensive series after series standing on the edge of the sideline. When he was on the field, he rushed on 10 of his snaps—from a traditional outside linebacker spot in a 4-3 defense, from his more familiar standing edge-rusher spots on the right and left sides, and from a standing position over top of the guard. It was Steelers guard Ramon Foster who met Harrison on Harrison's first play in the game, on a 3rd-and-16 during the Steelers’ second offensive drive. Foster shoved the linebacker to the inside while Felix Jones ran through the vacant spot and two yards shy of a first down. Harrison would rush nine more times, six times against the pass, never sniffing Roethlisberger. It must’ve been a relief for Big Ben, who likes to joke that the reason the undrafted Harrison is in the NFL is his four-sack performance as a Kent State standout against Roethlisberger and Miami (Oh.) in 2001. The two met on the field after the game Monday in different uniforms for the first time in 12 years.
What was said?
“We just talked,” the media-weary Harrison told reporters.
Any extra emotions playing the Steelers?
“No. It’s no more of a game than it was any other game.”
Asked to do a one-on-one television interview after the game, Harrison responded, incredulously, “I only played like six plays ... If they keep playing me like that, I might last three or four more years.”
Maybe, but will they be in Cincinnati, and at his current price? It’s hard to put a monetary value on what Harrison brings to the Bengals. In preparation for the Steelers, an assistant coach described Harrison as insightful and helpful to offensive game planners. In the locker room, he’s simultaneously a calming presence and a source of some uneasiness. The Bengals have situated his locker in the midst of its youngest linebackers. They revere him, though perhaps not in the way Steelers safety Ryan Clark suggested last week when he described Harrison as “probably something like a football Moses to them, having been to the Promised Land a few times.” On the other side of the room, he’s as much an enigma to some offensive players as he was when they played in different states. Says rookie running back Giovani Bernard, “In a way I kind of stay away from him.”
On the field you get what you see: Against a team like the Chicago Bears, who used at least one tight end on all but two offensive snaps in the season’s first two weeks, Harrison will contribute marginally as a pass rusher and significantly as a run stopper, as he did in 40 of 64 snaps in Week 1. Yet against teams that don’t rely so heavily on tight ends, barring injuries to Maualuga and Burfict, Harrison will sit, especially when the opposition is playing from behind.
That's good enough for a season, but for how long can coach Marvin Lewis justify using a roster spot on a part-time player earning roughly four times that of the team's other spare linebacker, Vincent Rey?
By all accounts, Harrison has treated each week with a veteran’s aplomb, whether he’s expecting 40 snaps or 10; whether he’s facing his former team or a non-division bottom feeder. You have to wonder if a proud veteran's mellow can last a full season.
”That’s what has made him a great player and a great person,” says Bengals rookie linebacker Jayson DiManche. “He doesn’t vary in the way that he does things, and if it was different for him, he didn’t show it.