Since returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers about four weeks ago, outside linebacker James Harrison has made steady progress and taken steps forward in each of his first three games as he’s worked himself back into playing shape following a quite brief retirement.
He nearly split snaps 50/50 with starter Arthur Moats in the Steelers’ last game against the Cleveland Browns, and has overall played about 42 percent of the team’s snaps since.
That included playing 29 snaps—about 40 percent—in his first game back in football, less than a week away from having been retired.
In all, he’s played about 80 snaps in the last three games as the Steelers continue to look for a platoon solution at the right outside linebacker spot with Jarvis Jones missing at least five more games after suffering a wrist injury that landed him on the short-term injured reserve list.
More important than the numbers, however, is that he has played better little by little with each passing game.
He has generally played the run well—especially last week—which is not at all surprising, considering he was the best 3-4 outside linebacker against the run for a stretch of several years in the second half of the previous decade.
More surprising is that he has had fair—though not great—success as a pass rusher. His success in the passing game shows up more in him winning his individual battles rather than actually generating a ‘pressure’ by, for example, a data website’s standards.
He has even been a pleasant surprise dropping into coverage. The only pass completed in his zone thus far went for a two-yard loss after he read the play and made the tackle. He has yet to be targeted on any other occasions, but he has shown to be in good position.
This might cause some to raise the question as to why Harrison wasn’t simply signed from the beginning, why it took a starter going down in order to bring him back.
The answer is quite simply because that is what it took for the Steelers to need to bring him back. Perhaps the fact that they chose to only carry three outside linebackers this year was a reflection on the front office’s thinking, indicating that they felt they always had Harrison in their back pocket in case of an emergency.
Because he doesn’t play special teams, it would make little sense to pay him a full guaranteed contract to sit on the bench, and maybe take four or five snaps a game away from Jones.
Under the circumstances, however, he has a full half of a season in which he will be getting heavy rotation—nearly 50/50 for now, and perhaps even more as time goes on—with Moats rather than sitting on the bench.
As far as Harrison goes, the front office played their cards right, and it paid off in the end. He was there when they needed him—in case they needed him—and he’s gotten up to speed about as fast as anybody could have hoped. And he’s on a week-to-week contract with nothing guaranteed.