Does James Harrison have anything left in the tank? (Al Behrman/AP)
Each Friday this offseason, Audibles will pit two players head-to-head in an attempt to figure out which one will have a better 2013 season. We’ll then take it to Twitter, to get your opinions on the debate. Find our previous Toss-Ups here.
For the second straight week (and probably the last time for a long while), our Toss-Up focuses on a Pittsburgh rookie. Last Friday, it was RB Le'Veon Bell matched up against Green Bay's Eddie Lacy.
This time, we shine the spotlight on Steelers rookie OLB Jarvis Jones and the man who formerly held the starting job in Pittsburgh that Jones wants, Cincinnati's James Harrison.
James Harrison: After nine seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (well, 10, if you count the cup of coffee he got in the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2002), Harrison split for another AFC North team. Now in Cincinnati, Harrison will be expected to provide some veteran fire to a team with Super Bowl aspirations.
But is there anything left in the tank? The 35-year-old Harrison missed three games last season and five in 2011, raising concerns about his ability to stay on the field for entire season. He's also shifting gears from the familiar 3-4 Pittsburgh defense to Cincinnati's 4-3 -- Harrison said it took him an extra day or two to learn his role, but he's "basically doing the same thing" he did in Pittsburgh.
Cincinnati does feature a potent defensive line, led by Geno Atkins, and Vontaze Burfict's arrival in the linebacking corps last season helped stabilize the rest of the defense. Harrison does not need to be the dominant force he was at times in Pittsburgh, like during a 16-sack year in 2008 (the second of five straight Pro Bowl berths for Harrison). The Bengals simply want him to hold his own in coverage and provide an extra hammer on the pass rush.
Jarvis Jones: As the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette pointed out, no rookie has started on the Steelers' defense in the past decade -- Casey Hampton and Kendrell Bell, in 2001, were the last first-year starters for Pittsburgh's D.
So, that's the history facing Jarvis Jones. Of course, few defensive rookies have landed in situations loaded with as much opportunity as has Jones. With Harrison now patrolling the field in Cincinnati and fourth-year OLB Jason Worilds in the final year of his contract, the clear plan appears to be that Jones, in the very near future, takes over a starting spot opposite LaMarr Woodley at outside linebacker.
Should Jones find his way into the lineup on a regular basis, the production ought to be there. Jones had 14.5 sacks for Georgia last season and 13.5 in 2011, with an average of 22 tackles for loss over those seasons.
Jones, though it all depends on how you want to judge linebackers. The guess here is that Harrison winds up with more tackles than Jones and, at least over the first quarter or so of the season, is on the field more frequently.
Jones will tip the scales in his favor by delivering more high-impact plays, mostly as a pass rusher. Cincinnati's linebackers had all of 6.0 sacks combined last season -- matching what a hobbled Harrison did from the spot Jones will play in 2013. The Pittsburgh defense is designed to get its linebackers (and an occasional blitzer from the secondary) to the quarterback; Cincinnati defensive line does most of the work pressuring opposing QBs.
Worilds stands as a wild card in this pick, too. He'll likely open camp as part of Pittsburgh's first-team defense and Steelers LB Larry Foote recently said that it will be very difficult for Jones to crack the starting lineup in Week 1. The longer Jones is coming off the bench as a situational pass rusher, the easier it will be to score this comparison in Harrison's favor.
Still, even in spot duty, Jones will be able to make an impact. Enough of one to be the selection here.