How did the menacing defender go from being a retired linebacker to one of the most impactful Pittsburgh players this season? The answer, plus thoughts on the turkey day results, the Week 13 spotlight player and 10 things to watch Sunday
Interesting weekend of football, starting with the two marquee games Thursday, and two big ones Sunday: New England at Green Bay in the late-afternoon national window, and Denver at Kansas City on Sunday night. You’ll hear much about those games, and no doubt already have this week. For my column today, I want to focus on something else: the comeback of James Harrison, who will try to chase down Drew Brees on Sunday at Heinz Field in a strange matchup with big playoff implications. Strange because the 4-7 Saints are tied for first in the moribund NFC South, and Pittsburgh is one of four seven-win teams jockeying for post-season position in the AFC North. Fun game.
Harrison’s story is downright stunning, if you consider all angles. He announced his retirement at the Steelers’ training complex on the South Side of Pittsburgh on Sept. 5, and then, after the severe wrist injury suffered by starting linebacker Jarvis Jones a couple of weeks later, Harrison was re-signed on Sept. 23. Since then, the 36-year-old Harrison has been playing like the 29-year-old James Harrison in his eight games as a second-time Steeler.
Averaging 53 percent of the defensive snaps per game, Harrison took four games to get his football legs back. In his last four, he’s been the classic Harrison. He sacked Andrew Luck twice and Joe Flacco twice in back-to-back games, and then, in his last two games before the Steelers’ bye, he had seven significant pressures or hits of Michael Vick and Zach Mettenberger against the Jets and Titans.
The game against Baltimore was a tour de force, with Harrison beating pricy left tackle Eugene Monroe of the Ravens for consistent pressure on Flacco. To watch that game, you wondered: Why did Harrison ever retire?
A quick primer: Harrison, who’d been an outside rusher and underrated run player in the Pittsburgh 3-4 defense, was a fish out of water in the Bengals’ 4-3 defense last year, and Cincinnati didn’t want him back after Mike Zimmer left to be the Vikings’ head coach. Harrison was wooed by the Cardinals, but he decided after talking to his two young sons that he didn’t want to live apart from them for another year. So he retired—even though he knew he still had some good football left in him.
“I had a deal in Arizona," Harrison said recently from Pittsburgh. “I could have gone to Arizona for $2 million guaranteed. I kept asking for more money, and I could tell they wanted me to sign. But at the end of it, I didn’t want to play anymore … if I had to be away from my kids. I was already away from my family for a year in Cincinnati, and I wasn’t going to do that to them again.
“Then the Steelers had that injury." Jones dislocated his wrist against Carolina on a Sunday night of Week 3. “At, like, 4:03 a.m. [Monday], Brett Keisel texted me: ‘Come back.’ Coach [Mike] Tomlin called me. But I wasn’t going to come back if it wasn’t okay with my boys. So I asked them, and they both said yes. And I signed.”
“How old are your boys?" I asked.
“Five and six," Harrison said.
“You’re saying your decision on whether you were going to play football again came down to what your 5- and 6-year-old sons wanted?" I asked.
“Right," he said.
Pretty noble of Harrison. Defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau found him to be the same power presence against the run, and the way Harrison rushes the passer is the way a great hockey player makes a power rush to the net, while a defenseman tries to ride him over to the board. Both athletes are low to the ground, trying to cut off the angle to the passer (for Harrison) or to the net (for the hockey player).
But after not playing effectively a year ago, and turning 36, I wondered if his play this fall was a surprise to him. “I can’t say I’m shocked, where I’m at," he said. “I’ve done this before. After games, you’re sort of questioning why you do, because you get so sore. I’m old and slow. Like I’ve said, this is God’s work, not mine."
James Harrison, the key to another Pittsburgh playoff run. Of all the surprising story lines in 2014, this is a big one.
About Last Night …
Detroit 34, Chicago 17.
Philadelphia 33, Dallas 10.
Seattle 19, San Francisco 3.
So, what did Thanksgiving football tell us? That the NFC playoff race is going to be ridiculously fun—and arduous. And that Seattle (8-4) is not going down without a fight. The Seahawks aren’t even a lock to make the playoffs (Detroit and Dallas are also 8-4 this morning), but my money would be on them to either win the NFC West or be the fifth seed, even though their schedule is extremely challenging.
The Seahawks have beaten their two top NFC West foes, Arizona and San Francisco, by identical 19-3 scores in the past five days. That’s hugely impressive seeing that Bruce Arians and Jim Harbaugh (and Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman) never get dominated like this. What the Seahawks have done is get so much better on defense, while going back to the smashmouth style that got them so far last season.
Three other thoughts about the Thursday games:
1. The Lions haven’t convinced me they’re ready to make a run. Nine quarters without scoring a touchdown? Then scoring three in the second quarter against a flawed Chicago defense? I found it amazing watching this game that Chicago was so lax in covering Calvin Johnson. Lax, as in irresponsible. You didn’t see that in New England, when the Patriots held Johnson to four catches for 56 yards. Whoever faces Detroit in a big game down the stretch—or in January—will understand that Matthew Stafford is significantly diminished as a player without Johnson playing great.
2. San Francisco’s not good enough to make a run. “This performance wasn't acceptable. I apologize for that," tweeted CEO Jed York after the loss to the Seahawks. He’s right. San Francisco has scored three touchdowns in the past three weeks. Three games, 36 points. Colin Kaepernick is hesitant and inaccurate; that’s what he was throughout the game Thursday night. Trouble for the Niners. Until garbage time on the last fruitless drive Thursday, Kaepernick was 12 for 25 for 95 yards. That’s pathetic. And the Niners are in trouble because this is not an isolated occurrence. Kaepernick, over the last four games, has completed 55 percent of his throws and three touchdown passes. That’s 1930s football, not today’s game.
3. LeSean McCoy is heating up, and that could override the mediocrity of Mark Sanchez. The Eagles crushed Dallas with Sanchez being just a minor factor. For the fourth time in the past seven games, McCoy exceeded 115 rushing yards (he ran the ball 25 times for 159 yards in the rout of Dallas) and he convinced Chip Kelly that the Eagles don’t have to be great at quarterback to win big games. Now, let’s look at the future. Imagine Detroit (8-4), Dallas (8-4) and Seattle (8-4) vying for the fifth and sixth playoff seeds; those are three teams deserving to be playing in January. The last four weeks of the season will be compelling and bloodthirsty.
Player You Need To Know This Weekend
Darrelle Revis, cornerback, New England (number 24). Normally I spotlight an unknown player in this space, but let’s face it: For the Patriots to go to Lambeau Field and beat the mighty Aaron Rodgers on Sunday, Revis is going to have to earn his weekly paycheck of $705,882.35. Rodgers is close to perfect at Lambeau Field (18 touchdown passes, no picks this season in five starts), and he has an incredible partner. Jordy Nelson has 616 yards and six touchdowns in those five home games this season, with one of the gaudiest yards-per-catch average (25.7) Mike McCarthy could ever draw up. Revis is going to have to be the physical coverage presence the Patriots signed him to be for New England to have a good chance here.
Bose Sound Bite of the Week
Bills coach Doug Marrone in the locker room after Monday's win:
"Just like we talk about all the time... You know what, I wanted to say this all week, and I'm going to finally say it: Let's go home. Family on three..."
Regular Old Quote of the Week
"You need that guy to come back and make a play. There isn’t any sense in chewing him out. That’s not going to do any good."
—Arizona coach Bruce Arians, who often seems to find himself in quote-of-the-week territory, on backup wideout Jaron Brown, discussing why he didn’t lay into Brown when he dropped an easy touchdown pass in the 19-3 loss to Seattle on Sunday.
Headline of the Week
"TAKE HIM BACK."
—The Tampa Bay Times, after former Bears quarterback Josh McCown played poorly against Chicago last Sunday, above a story about McCown’s performance.
Ten Things I’ll Be Watching For This Weekend
1. The battle of the Wonderlic scores. Great note this week from Rob Reischel of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: Aaron Rodgers scored a 35 on his pre-Scouting Combine Wonderlic test, Tom Brady a 33. Those are really good scores. The Wonderlic is a 50-question intelligence/personality test that has to be finished in 10 minutes, and any score above 30 is considered brainy. The two scholars meet at Lambeau on Sunday afternoon in what could be a Super Bowl preview. So, with the Wonderlic scores in mind, let me make this call: New England 35, Green Bay 33. I’m pulling the switcheroo. I like the Patriots, narrowly.
2. Aaron Rodgers, trying to continue his historically good home streak. First, Rodgers has a 30-to-3 touchdown-to-interception differential this year, and he’s played nine of 11 games for the 8-3 Packers without throwing a pick. One pick came in cacophonous Seattle in the season-opener, the other two at noisy New Orleans on Oct. 26. In fact, he hasn’t thrown an interception at Lambeau Field since Dec. 2, 2012, against Minnesota. In his 11 games at Lambeau Field since, he’s thrown 29 touchdown passes and no interceptions. Quite remarkable.
3. The Justin Forsett Show. The Chargers fly cross-country to face the Ravens on a short week for Baltimore, and there’s little doubt San Diego will face a steady diet of Forsett (294 yards the last two games, 7.0 yards per carry). What a story. Forsett’s only making this impact because Ray Rice got suspended, and Forsett needs 97 yards to earn the first 1,000-yard rushing season of his NFL career. “To get this opportunity, which I never thought I’d get again, it’s a blessing," said Forsett.
4. Whether anyone really wants the NFC South. Let’s see. Tampa Bay hands one to the Bears. Atlanta’s clock-mismanagement was ruinous and caused the loss to Cleveland. New Orleans went home for three games to get well and lost all three. So the Saints and Falcons sit atop the division (or should I say, “rubbish pile?”) at 4-7 with five games to play. Atlanta hosts Arizona, and New Orleans travels to Pittsburgh. “The situation we’re in is where we are," Saints coach Sean Payton said this week, channeling his inner Belichick. Then he put the cherry atop the beignet sundae: “It is what it is."
5. Giants at Jacksonville. Other than the requisite Odell Beckham Jr. highlight, zzzzzzzzzz.
6. Scheduling karma for Tom Coughlin. The slate is set up for Coughlin to save his job. In the next four weeks, the Giants play 1-, 2-, 3-, and 4-win teams (Jacksonville, Tennessee, Washington, St. Louis), and a four-game win streak would do wonders for the endangered Coughlin’s 2015 job prospects.
7. The best early game Sunday is the Rust Bowl Championship Game. It’s 7-4 Cleveland at 6-5 (and snow-cleared) Buffalo. Love this game. The Bills are rushing the passer like the ’85 Bears. The Browns have the luckiest rabbit’s foot in Mike Pettine’s pocket. I want to watch every play of this one.
8. A darn good Sunday-nighter, with an asterisk. Pardon the 7-4 Chiefs if their minds are elsewhere before the AFC West showdown with 8-3 Denver at Arrowhead Sunday—the biggest game in town since Game 7 of the World Series last month. Kansas Citians, the ones on the field and those in the sea of red in the stands, will be sending good vibes out to strong safety Eric Berry, a few hundred miles away in Atlanta, where he is undergoing treatment for lymphoma, a type of cancer. Berry’s one of the big leaders on the Chiefs, and you can be sure there will be more than a few Chiefs teary before this game, thinking of him and wanting to play well against Peyton Manning as Berry watches on TV.
9. The most compelling unit in football. It’s St. Louis’ special teams. Is there some unwritten rule in Jeff Fisher’s playbook that he has to do something quirky in the kicking game every Sunday? Hats off to special teams coach John Fassel, and punter/surprise quarterback Johnnie Hekker, who completed another fake-punt pass last week at San Diego. Fair warning, Oakland. Be ready. After all, you should know Fassel, who formerly coached your special teams.
10. The wistful Jerry. Bold thing for Dallas owner Jerry Jones to say, about Tony Romo’s fate: “It will be the most negative thing about my ownership, in my mind, if Tony has a career here and we don’t win a Super Bowl with him. To have had his talent come through this organization and us not get a Super Bowl … He’s outstanding at coming from behind and winning games. He’s played some of his finest games this year." Look for news soon about a couple of important signings the Cowboys need to do: wideout Dez Bryant and running back DeMarco Murray.
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