By Sterling Pingree
The Pittsburgh Steelers released linebacker James Harrison.
The New England Patriots signed linebacker James Harrison.
These two statements are equally stunning. Harrison is a defensive institution within an organization that itself is already a defensive institution. The Steel Curtain: Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert, L.C. Greenwood, Ernie Holmes and Jack Ham. What do these greats have in common? Answer: none of them have more sacks in a Steelers uniform than James Harrison.
Even with the season ending injury to Ryan Shazier, the Steelers looked at the guy that has been the heart and soul of 2 Super Bowl champions and essentially said; “we’re better off without you.” Turn the scenario around and it would be like Tedy Bruschi being cut in 2007 and signing with the Giants.
The two big questions surrounding Harrison are:
- Is he really going to be able to help the Patriots?
- Did the Patriots sign him just to get intelligence on the Steelers?
Starting with the first question, this is a low risk move for the Patriots and Harrison could make the team better with his skill set. Financially, the Patriots are only paying roughly $20,000 more per game that Harrison is on the roster than they were if they kept Trevor Reilly, who was cut to make space for #92.
James Harrison is one of the best pure pass rushers of this generation as illustrated by his 16 sack, defensive player of the year performance in 2008. His skills in pass coverage have diminished, but the one thing that Harrison has always had a knack for is getting after the quarterback. Known as one of the most physical freaks in the NFL, even at 39 years old Harrison is in incredible shape, which made Pittsburgh’s decision to bench him more often than not this season even more confusing.
Harrison has only played in 5 games this season for the Steelers and has 3 tackles and a sack, which oddly enough all came vs Kansas City. The blue print for the Patriots are trying to accomplish with Harrison is what the Atlanta Falcons did with Dwight Freeney last season. Freeney was used situationally all season and played in all three of Atlanta’s playoff games and made it all worthwhile when he sacked Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. The Patriots benefit from the Steelers leaving a lot of tread left on Harrison’s tires this season and if he can manage a sack in a big situation, then this has to be seen as a success. The Patriots are most likely only going to use Harrison as a pass rusher in specific situations.
The season question of, did the Patriots sign Harrison to gain insight into the inner workings of the Steelers, I think is a little farfetched. Is it a bonus? Sure, but these two teams are no strangers to each other, nor is the Steelers defense a nut that Bill Belichick and company have yet to crack. One needs to look no further than last year’s AFC Championship for an example.
What Harrison does bring obviously is a familiarity with the Steelers, but also an in depth knowledge of the Baltimore Ravens and the Kansas City Chiefs. James Harrison has played his entire career in the AFC North, meaning that he has played the Ravens twice a year for 15 years. The Ravens are currently the 5-seed in the AFC playoffs and the Patriots didn’t play Baltimore this season.
Harrison has been a bad match up for Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher. It was Fisher who was called for holding Harrison on the 2-point conversion that was called back in last year’s divisional round. It was that play that wound up costing the Chiefs the game. (It was legitimate too, Fisher hog tied him and rode Harrison to the ground, if he had more rope he would have finished the knot with a grand flourish and yelled “TIME!”) As mentioned earlier, it was against the Chiefs this year that Harrison had 3 tackles and a sack, all against Eric Fisher. The Chiefs are currently the four seed in the AFC.
That means of the 3 possible teams the Patriots could play in the divisional round as it currently stands: Kansas City, Baltimore and Tennessee, James Harrison has extended experience against 2 of them. Add that to his knowledge of possible AFC Championship opponent, Pittsburgh, and there is a lot of wisdom that could be gleaned from James Harrison.
Now with the playoffs at our door step and a potential Patriots/Steelers clash looming, Harrison is donning the “Flying Elvis” of the dark side. Nobody has more pride than a veteran in the NFL and there is no fury like a veteran scorned (or something like that). That scorned veteran has a score to settle and Foxboro might be just the place to settle it.
Sterling Pingree (@SterlingPingree on Twitter) is a co-host on The Drive, weekdays 4pm to 6pm on 92.9fm The Ticket and streaming live at DriveShowMaine.com. Follow us on Twitter, @DriveShowMaine and “Like Us” on Facebook, Drive Show Maine.