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Harrison returns to new-look linebacker core


PITTSBURGH (AP) James Harrison walked off the practice field in his familiar No. 92 jersey Wednesday afternoon, a gift of sorts from nose tackle Daniel McCullers.

The rookie graciously gave up the number when the Pittsburgh Steelers re-signed Harrison to give an injury depleted linebacker group a welcome dose of veteran snarl.

''He deserves it,'' McCullers said. ''He's a good player.''

One who finds himself on a team that's undergone a rapid fire makeover in the 18 months since the Steelers released the five-time Pro Bowler in March, 2013 in a salary cap maneuver.

While McCullers swapped to No. 62 out of deference to Harrison, everything else won't be quite as easy for the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who came out of a brief 18-day retirement on Tuesday for one last season.

Star wide receiver Antonio Brown took over Harrison's sprawling locker and has no plans on giving it up. Harrison's spot in the parking lot was claimed by a massive red pickup truck.

And the starting job Harrison held during his prime now belongs to Arthur Moats, at least until Jarvis Jones recovers from the broken wrist that led the Steelers to call Harrison in the first place.

Sweat pouring off his bald head, Harrison spoke like a man who understands he's no longer an integral part of the game plan but a role player.

''No aspirations, no goals,'' Harrison said. ''I'm just trying to make it to tomorrow.''

The 36-year-old put on about 10 pounds since the end of the 2013 season. He felt every single one of them during a spirited practice on Wednesday that reminded him of the contrast between being in shape and being ready to slam into other grown men for a living.

Harrison estimated it may take him 3-4 weeks to be truly ready, but estimated he's fit enough to see the field for a handful of plays.

That's likely all he'd see anyway as the new elder statesman in a linebacker group that doesn't feature a player over the age of 28.

Lawrence Timmons is the only starting linebacker left over from Harrison's last game in a Steelers uniform in December 2012.

LaMarr Woodley is in Oakland. Larry Foote is in Arizona. Harrison is now back with the team he helped win a pair of Super Bowls, albeit in a far different capacity.

He will start Sunday's game against winless Tampa Bay (0-3) on the sideline watching Arthur Moats - who considers Harrison a role model - take the strong outside linebacker spot in Pittsburgh's intricate 3-4 defense.

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In a way, perhaps it's fitting. Like Harrison the 6-foot, 250-pound Moats is undersized. Like Harrison he plays with an intensity that makes his frame immaterial.

''Early in my career, (Harrison) was definitely was a guy that I was watching for that very reason,'' Moats said. ''So, guys like us can get the job done.''

Moats certainly looked capable after taking over for Jones when the former first-round pick broke his right wrist while forcing Carolina's Cam Newton to fumble in the third quarter of last Sunday's 37-19 win over the Panthers.

Moats darted in on Newton for a sack shortly after entering, hauling down one of the NFL's biggest quarterbacks with a well-placed hand on Newton's shoulder pads.

It's a move straight out of Harrison's playbook.

''I'm a compact guy, so I have good leverage and good burst,'' Moats said. ''So, I feel like that helps me a lot out on the edge.''

Moats is one of eight defensive players starting on Sunday who were not atop the depth chart the last time Harrison wore black and gold.

The most unlikely name may be Sean Spence, who will cap his remarkable comeback from a left knee injury that nearly derailed his career two years ago. Spence missed the 2012 and 2013 seasons during his painful recovery from two torn ligaments and extensive nerve damage.

Spence was pressed into action last weekend when rookie Ryan Shazier went down with a strained right MCL. Shazier is out indefinitely, giving Spence a chance to run out of the tunnel at Heinz Field as a starter for the first time. The significance is not lost on him.

''I'll try to hold the tears back,'' Spence said. ''I'm not sure. I know it will be emotional.''

For Harrison too. He thought he was done for good when he called a retirement news conference on Sept. 5.

Less than three weeks later he was back in a familiar place, even if it's not quite as familiar as it used to be.

''Different faces, but it's still the same,'' Harrison said. ''It's still a family. We've just got different members.''

NOTES: Steelers WR Darrius Heyward-Bey did not practice on Wednesday due to illness. ... RB Dri Archer (ankle) and G Ramon Foster (ankle) did practice after missing the Panthers' game.


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