When the Pittsburgh Steelers take on the Cincinnati Bengals on Sunday, it may perhaps be the final battle for two of the greats of this division rivalry over the years—whether that is due to retirement or for whatever other reason that may lead to their exiting the rivalry beyond this season.
For several years now, Andrew Whitworth has been among the best left tackles in the league. He has been one for a while, but it took the league a while to realize it, before he started earning trips to the Pro Bowl. He has often, but not always, gotten the better of the Steelers, particularly in recent years.
Across from him will be outside linebacker James Harrison, who appears to be once again the newly-appointed full-time starter at the right outside linebacker position, as the 38-year-old played every single snap—albeit with an abnormally low snap total for the game—against the Bills in the snow on Sunday.
Both players have been on the top of their game lately, with Harrison notching five sacks since the bye week and Whitworth helping to revitalize a floundering offense down the stretch with his stifling of the Bengals’ opponents’ best edge defenders.
It is interesting to note that, according to Pro Football Focus, the three worst games that Whitworth had during the 2015 season were the three games that came against the Steelers. Harrison played the majority of the team’s snaps in those three games, which I’m going to say is not a coincidence.
But in the Steelers’ earlier meeting with the Bengals this year, in the second game of the season, it was Jarvis Jones who saw the majority of the team’s snaps at the right outside linebacker position, so the fact that, according to PFF’s data, Whitworth held Harrison to just one hurry in that game should not be overly surprising.
It would be fair to say that Harrison has played his way into even better form as the season has evolved, not just because he is playing a higher volume of snaps now, but because he is also legitimately having more success, making more stops against the run and getting more frequent pressure on the quarterback.
Harrison might well still be the Steelers’ best player on defense after all these years—and he is playing better than he has in years, as well—and Whitworth is certainly the Bengals’ best lineman, and one of their best players on the offensive side of the ball, period.
Their one-on-one matchup on Sunday may well prove to be one of the most crucial in deciding the outcome of this game, and it says a lot about the old guard, with Whitworth also having recently turned 35.
These are old men by football standards, and it’s not clear what the future holds for either one. Both are slated to be free agents, and neither are guaranteed to be back next year, even though they both certainly are still playing at a high level.