By Matthew Marczi
Although former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison is now playing for the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, I think it is still safe to say that, for most fans, Harrison is and will always be a Steeler, having left an indelible mark on the organization and its history.
Adding to the love affair of Silverback is a recent article posted on the statistics website Pro Football Focus, which examines the top ten edge rushers over the past five seasons. While Harrison has had excellent stretches dating back to the year before his Defensive Player of the Year season in 2008, so much of the last five years has seen him slowed by back, neck, knee, and even facial injuries.
Despite all of the wear and tear that has diminished his productivity of late, however, PFF has still determined that Harrison was the top edge rusher throughout the entire league over the course of the last five seasons with a total score of +155, which just nudges past DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys, who earned a score of +154.8. Here is what they had to say about Harrison:
What pushed Harrison to the top was his ability to do it all. The Steelers’ scheme asked a lot out of him, and more than you’d tend to require from a guy chiefly known as an edge rusher. Yet, not only did he impress dropping into coverage, but he was extremely productive rushing the passer, and a true force in the run game lining up chiefly as the right outside linebacker for the Steelers in each of his five years.
Indeed, if you look at our Pass Rushing Productivity Signature Stats you’ll see that among 3-4 outside linebackers Harrison finished first in 2008, third in 2009, fifth in 2010 and third again in 2011, before his play dropped off in 2012. That’s incredible pass rushing efficiency, and it’s backed up by some fantastic work in the run game where his five-year grade was the third highest of all.
A truly complete player, there hasn’t been another like him over the past five years.
Impressive accolades indeed, and something that points to an extremely underappreciated aspect of Harrison’s game, something that will be most difficult for the Steelers to replace of all: his ability to set the edge and play the run.
Just take a look at his total tackle numbers and see how many more plays he impacts than the average outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. Three times in his career he has reached at least 98 tackles, twice reaching 100. The only season that he finished with less than 70 tackles as a starter was in 2011, when he missed five games, and he still managed 59 tackles. Even last year, missing the first three games and playing his way into shape, he still amassed 70 tackles.
Compare those numbers to some of the other noted 3-4 outside linebackers in recent years. Ware, for example, second on the list, has twice reached 84 tackles and topped 70 on three occasions in his eight seasons; however, he tends to average closer to 60. Clay Matthews once reached 60 tackles, but did not top 51 in any of his other three years, though he too has been limited with injuries.
The young Von Miller is an exceptional talent at outside linebacker. His 30 sacks in two seasons is incredible, and his 132 total tackles in those two years is also above average for his position; but it is still not the level of impact that Harrison brings to run support.
Teammate LaMarr Woodley, who in fact finished seventh on the PFF list with a score of +96.9, twice reached 60 in 2008 and 2009. In 2011, he was on pace for 78 tackles before a hamstring injury ruined him for the rest of the year. But those are still not James Harrison numbers.
Perhaps the closest adversary is Terrell Suggs from the Baltimore Ravens. PFF, in fact, places Suggs at the top ranking against the run for his position. He has certainly performed consistently: since becoming a starter in 2004, excluding last season when he missed half the year, he dipped below 60 tackles just once, when he missed three games in 2009 and finished with 59 tackles.
Needless to say, tackle totals are far from the bottom line when it comes to an athlete’s ability to play the run in this game. But it is a simple measure to point to as a suggestion of an overall argument, and that is this: As the article from Pro Football Focus states, no player at his position over the past five seasons has been able to combine exceptional pass rushing skills with his ability to play the run. There truly hasn’t been another like him.
Oh, and lest we forget his exceptional playmaking ability, his 25 forced fumbles between 2007 and 2010 are a comfortable reminder. The Steelers will not simply find another James Harrison; his talent was too unique to replicate. And so the search begins by committee with Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.