A free agent with few suitors this offseason, the once feared and virtually unstoppable James Harrison flew from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz., to Cincinnati in mid-April looking for a lifeline. There, the longtime Steelers linebacker and 2008 Defensive Player of the Year met with Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer but seemed nothing like his confident, brash self.
"He was a bit standoffish," the coach recalls. "It wasn't like we all of a sudden became best friends. When you walk into a new situation, you want to find out what people are about and make judgments after that.
"Maybe standoffish isn't the right word," Zimmer adds. "Cautious."
After spending his entire career in the Steelers' 3-4 defense, the 35-year-old Harrison couldn't be anything but circumspect at the prospect of being plugged into the Bengals' 4-3 scheme. But Zimmer, entering his sixth season in Cincy, spent a good chunk of the winter making sure Harrison was worth the two-year, $4.45 million deal he signed on April 23.
The coordinator ignored statistics, knowing 2012 was Harrison's least productive season as a starter (just six sacks in 13 games) following left knee surgery last August. Zimmer concentrated on game film from the final third of the season, hoping to see Harrison at his healthiest. What he saw was a linebacker who showed flashes of the brutality and smarts that made him one of the NFL's most respected pass rushers and a Pro Bowler for five straight seasons, from 2007 to ’11. But Harrison's coverage skills remained a mystery. The Steelers rarely asked him to drop back, even less so in man coverage against players other than running backs.
When Zimmer and Harrison met, they eventually bonded over their love of the outdoors—"We're both hunters. Hopefully we'll go out one day," Zimmer says—but the coach still had a nagging question that film study couldn't answer. How receptive would the enigmatic Harrison be to change?
So far, so good.
In private moments, the two-time Super Bowl champ tutors young players on longevity: Entering his 11th season, Harrison spends close to $600,000 a year to maintain his body and even owns a hyperbaric chamber. And Zimmer describes Harrison as a comprehensive note-taker who asks questions all the time. Where am I supposed to be? Am I correct on this?
Harrison, however, won't answer reporters' questions. He declined all interview requests this offseason—his agent, Bill Parise, said he felt "burned" in the past. In August 2011, Harrison was featured in a Men’s Journal article in which he called commissioner Roger Goodell a "crook and a puppet," among other things, and blamed teammates on offense for the Steelers' 31-25 loss to the Packers in Super Bowl XLV.
Though he appears to have changed his ways off the field, the Bengals hope they're still getting the type of player who rumbled 100 yards for a touchdown after intercepting Kurt Warner just before halftime of Super Bowl XLIII. But in judging how much Harrison has left, it's not enough simply to ask whether or not he can fit into a 4-3.
Zimmer's defense isn't your grandmother's 4-3. It's constantly evolving based on the personnel, and constantly trying to amp up pressure by creating mismatches with an array of stunts and bluffs. The unit set a franchise record with 51 sacks last season—40 of which came from a still-emerging line that features ends Carlos Dunlap (24 years old) and Michael Johnson (26), and tackle Geno Atkins (25).
How unpredictable and versatile are the Bengals?
They might load eight in the box, appearing to bring a heavy blitz, only to throw the quarterback a curveball by rushing the corner from the slot side and rotating a safety from his pre-snap blitz position to fill the vacancy. They might fake an inside blitz, leaving interior blockers searching for someone to hit while the quarterback gets rolled up by edge rushers—precisely how Cincinnati wrangled Ben Roethlisberger (season-high two interceptions, season-low 50% completion rate) in a Week 16 win over the Steelers last season. The Bengals might even have their corners play bump-and-run on 3rd-and-20, or blitz a safety on 1st-and-10 with 80 yards of open field behind the secondary.
If not for Zimmer’s ingenuity, which produced the league’s sixth-ranked defense last season (319.7 yards per game), the Bengals might have taken a pass on Harrison. But as Johnson says of his new teammate, "Zim will cook up something." So it is through the coordinator's wonky play calling that we attempt to gauge Harrison's prospects. After talking to Zimmer and analyzing game film, I had these four main takeaways:
• Harrison isn't the same edge rusher he was even two years ago
This was evident watching the Steelers' Week 17 game against the Browns. Two factors that once made Harrison so effective coming off the edge were his leverage and unpredictability. An opposing tackle never knew if the 6-0, 240-pound linebacker was going to rip under his left shoulder and sprint around him or charge upfield, plant abruptly with his outside foot, then duck and slam the blocker's chest, driving him backward into the quarterback.
Browns blockers mostly kept James Harrison from harassing first-time starter Thaddeus Lewis in Week 17. (David Dermer/Getty Images)
Under a flurry-filled sky in Pittsburgh in Week 17, Browns left tackle Joe Thomas was hardly moved. Harrison hurried quarterback Thaddeus Lewis just once in the rookie’s first career start. And the Steelers' lone sack came when a panicked Lewis ran into his own blockers; Harrison had been in shallow coverage and was merely the first to apply the tag.
Harrison can occasionally look like his old self, rather than just old. Perhaps his best highlight of the season came in Week 13, when he beat Ravens left tackle Michael Oher around the edge to sack Joe Flacco and force a fumble in the fourth quarter of a 23-20 Steelers win. But Oher, who would move to his more comfortable position of right tackle during the playoffs, remained otherwise stout against the guy who had abused him for three sacks on Nov. 6, 2011.
• Harrison can be a disruptive force up the middle, and Zimmer plans to use him there
In the Bengals' Week 16 meeting with the Steelers, Zimmer saw first-hand what Harrison can do when he is moved around the formation. With just a little more than four minutes remaining in a tie game, Harrison squatted five yards behind the line of scrimmage in an outside linebacker spot similar to the one he'll play in Cincinnati. He took a few pre-snap lead steps before slamming into inexperienced center Kyle Cook. The bull-rush harried Andy Dalton, who tried to escape but sprinted into a Harrison sack.
Zimmer believes Harrison still has the strength to create this kind of mayhem. "He does do some good things rushing up the middle," the coordinator says. "We're going to try to rush him a lot of different ways and try to create as many mismatches as we can with offensive linemen."
• Harrison won't be asked to cover slot receivers and tight ends, which is a problem for the Bengals
Harrison was rarely required to shadow tight ends or wideouts downfield in Pittsburgh last season. Instead, he typically dropped back into the flats, followed a running back out of the backfield, or made sure the tight end didn't release as a safety valve.
His play recognition in passing situations can be spotty. In the first quarter of that Bengals game on Dec. 23, Harrison lined up equidistant to a three-man receiver bunch and the left tackle. Dalton spun a bubble screen to A.J. Green, and Harrison, slow to recognize the play and slow to arrive, was on the wrong end of a successful stiff arm.
No matter how inventive Zimmer might be, these kind of plays make Harrison's signing a bit peculiar. Consider what the coordinator did last season with strongside linebacker Manny Lawson, the man Harrison is replacing after the 28-year-old Lawson signed a four-year, $12 million deal with the Bills in March.
Against the Dolphins in Week 5, Lawson played a season-high 46 defensive snaps out of a possible 66. But wide receiver Brian Hartline and tailback Reggie Bush routinely abused him from the slot, and the 17-13 loss marked a shift in Zimmer’s thinking. The Bengals subsequently relied more on their base nickel defense, and it took Lawson three more games to accumulate another 46 snaps. In each of the final 11 contests, he never played more than half of Cincy’s defensive snaps.
An obvious question must be asked of Harrison: How much will a seemingly one-dimensional player diminish the Bengals' unpredictability and versatility?
• Harrison is no longer an every-down player
What the Bengals needed was a quick linebacker who can patrol a hash mark in Zimmer's "man within a zone" coverages while remaining a constant threat to blitz. Harrison, by all accounts a perfect fit in the locker room, may not be the same on the field.
By the looks of things, Harrison at 35 is a short-yardage run-stopper and a situational blitz specialist who will see slightly more snaps than Lawson did in 2012. This would mean a significant role change for the veteran, who played 837 out of 839 possible snaps when he was healthy with Pittsburgh last season. Lawson was on the field just 34% of the time (398 out of 1,170 snaps).
Why the need for a rangy linebacker? Look no further than the Bengals' 19-13 wild-card loss to the Texans, which denied Cincinnati its first playoff victory since 1990. Houston realized early on it could use swift tight end Owen Daniels to stretch the defense and pave the way for running back Arian Foster. Slipping behind linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga, and beating undersized corners Leon Hall and Pacman Jones on sideline hitches and slants across the middle, Daniels caught nine balls for 91 yards. Foster finished with 140 yards and a touchdown on 32 carries.
According to Pro Football Focus, the 22-year-old Burfict graded negative or neutral in pass coverage in all but two games last season; the 26-year-old Maualuga graded negative or neutral in all but one. And the two combined for just two sacks. Despite their struggles, Harrison still looks to be the odd man out on 3rd-and-long; he hasn't had a positive PFF pass defense grade since the 2011 season opener.
Zimmer insists he will find the right way—or ways—to use Harrison, whom he terms an upgrade over Lawson. Harrison could, for instance, be used as a defensive lineman in nickel situations. But that might create other problems. Who would get bumped from one of the AFC's best fronts? How much would that disrupt their chemistry? And would Harrison even be effective in the trenches? From 2007 to ’11 he led the NFL with 26 forced fumbles and ranked fifth with 54 sacks. Over the past two seasons he has averaged just two forced fumbles and 8.5 sacks.