The Pittsburgh Steelers certainly weren’t planning on calling upon James Harrison for a family reunion when they put their plans together for their defensive strategy in 2014. At best, the prospect of Harrison sitting on his couch was an emergency alternative in light of their decision to carry only three outside linebackers on the roster.
The team was, of course, all ready to move on with Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones, the latter being their first-round draft pick in 2013 at the position Harrison once manned in dominant fashion from 2007 to 2012.
When Jones went down in a freak injury after forcing a sack fumble in Week Three, however, the fortuitous reunion became a virtual inevitability once some of the team’s veterans managed to talk him out of retirement for one last season.
He’s played extensively in each of his seven games played, even while playing himself back into football shape, but his performance, as well as his snap counts, have been on the upswing in recent weeks.
The Steelers signed Arthur Moats as a free agent in the offseason because they felt comfortable with him as the primary backup at both outside linebacker spots, as well as his ability to start on the outside should an injury necessitate it.
He has indeed been the starter over the past seven games, but he hasn’t been playing starter’s snaps in recent weeks. In fact, he’s logged less than 50 percent of the defensive snaps in three of the Steelers’ last four games, giving way to Harrison in that span.
Since the fourth game of the season, Moats has played 229 snaps on defense. Harrison has played 228. That included two plays last week in which both were on the field together when Moats gave Jason Worilds a breather on the left side.
So who really is the starter then, if the defense is gradually shifting toward giving Harrison more playing time than Moats? Was this the plan all along as Harrison slowly played his way into football shape and was able to take on a more demanding workload?
Like Brett Keisel, Harrison may be the better option to start, but perhaps the coaching staff feels a need to protect these veterans from themselves, shielding them from a starter’s workload in order to keep them fresher later on in the season.
And for a team with playoff aspirations after missing the tournament for two years running, that may be pretty important.
When Jones does return from injury, however, which may be soon, after the Steelers’ bye week, the coaching staff will have to decide what to do with those snaps.
It’s hardly feasible to rotate three players at one position, but then again Worilds is one of the few players on the defense that almost never comes off the field.
He has missed only seven of 651 snaps this year, with some of them coming in the Steelers’ big nickel package early this season. Of course, this needn’t be addressed until Jones is actually able to return to the lineup.