At the age of 37, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison is not going to be counted upon to carry the load in what may be his last season in the NFL. At least, that is the plan—but things rarely go according to plan.
That plan, as laid out by newly-appointed outside linebackers coach Joey Porter, is to see Harrison get about 25 snaps per game, on average, a message that he conveyed during the draft, saying that he has spoken to the 13th-year veteran about his status and that there was an understanding in place.
As OTAs started last week, predictably, Harrison was indeed running with the second-team defense, such that that means anything with everybody running around in short during the month of May. It is, after all, Jarvis Jones’ job, a former first-round draft pick entering his third season.
But as we all know, Harrison is not one to concede to a reserve role meekly, even if he is publicly amiable about the idea. And the truth is that 25 snaps a game is actually a good amount of playing time—400 snaps—for a reserve, meaning that he would be a true rotational player, and not just depth.
Will it end up working out that way? Frankly, the only way to know is to wait to see how it plays out. There are a variety of factors that will dictate the course of action going forward. If Jones plays below expectations, for example, or obviously gets injured, they may not have much choice.
Harrison also has a reputation of being difficult to get off the field once he gets on it, even recently telling the media that he doesn’t like to come off, and that nobody would. But I don’t think that will necessarily be the issue, if there is one.
More likely, it could wind up being the coaching staff not wanting him to come off the field. That is what happened last season. he was re-signed with the idea of playing 15 to 20 snaps per game, and he played over 20 snaps in every game in which he played. He simply performed at too high a level to justify playing him less, even though Arthur Moats was starting for the majority of that time period.
By the end of the season, the starting job was his, and he was hardly coming off the field, despite having an injury issue of his own that kept him out of two games. It’s not impossible that that ends up happening again.
Last season, when the Steelers re-signed Brett Keisel, they wanted to limit him. They did manage to keep him out of the starting lineup, but he still consistently played more than Cam Thomas. The idea was to keep him fresh for the duration of the season and ready for a postseason run.
That is surely the mindset that is guiding the Steelers’ plans currently with respect to Harrison, even if he says that he feels better than he has in years. But it’s easier to talk about his snap count in May than it is in November.