Although nobody seems to care (neither Pro Football Focus nor the league’s official statistics list it), James Harrison made his first career start for the Pittsburgh Steelers since 2012 on Monday night against the Tennessee Titans, dropping in coverage as he watched William Gay return an interception for a touchdown.
To drive the point home, Harrison stayed on the field after the score for the next possession, recording the first tackle of the game for the Steelers on running back Bishop Sankey after three yards when he shed the block of the tight end. In fact, he played every snap on that second drive.
And he’ll likely continue in that role for the remainder of the season. At least that is what I’m predicting. Harrison will finish his career where he should, as the starting right outside linebacker for the Steelers.
That’s a long way away from retirement, which where he found himself when the 2014 season began, no longer interested in pursuing latching onto a team for one last year.
But when the opportunity arose to rejoin Dick LeBeau, Troy Polamalu, and the Steelers, it didn’t take him long at all to accept, and his playing time, and performance, has been on a steady incline since signing.
When he was first brought back, he played a lot of snaps immediately—perhaps more than he should have—and there were moments where it was obvious he wasn’t in football shape.
That was okay for the time being, as he had been second fiddle to Arthur Moats, who took over the starting right outside linebacker job when Jarvis Jones went down.
Moats was the starter for the next seven games up until Monday night in Tennessee, wherein he didn’t see the field until the defense’s seventh snap, or their third possession. Harrison logged 10 snaps in the first half to Moats’ nine, each with a one-play drive in the equation.
But Harrison played every snap of the second half, finishing with a season-high 77.5 percent of the defense’s snaps. Moats logged two snaps on the left side to give Jason Worilds a breather, finishing the game with just 11 snaps, or barely a quarter of the team’s defensive snaps.
And it’s not a sudden, emergent trend, either. It’s been apparent, perhaps even inevitable, in the weeks leading up to now, in which Moats logged under 50 percent of the defensive snaps in four of the last five games, and under 55 percent in the last six.
The simple fact of the matter is that as Harrison has gotten in better shape and played better, he’s gotten more snaps. At the bye week, there’s no reason to believe Harrison won’t continue to see the lion’s share of the snaps at right outside linebacker.
Especially with reports that the Steelers are merely “cautiously optimistic” that Jones will be back at some point this year. If and when he returns, he, too, will need to play his way back onto the field and earn back his playing time. And Harrison isn’t about to give up his seat.