Taking Away James Harrison’s Snaps No Easy Proposition

So, what’s the deal at outside linebacker?

We got some interesting comments yesterday about the Pittsburgh Steelers’ premiere pass-rushing position from the coach responsible for the position, as well as from the coach responsible for all the other coaches. The latter would tend to be the one to trust, since he gets the veto on everything.

As you probably know by now, outside linebackers coach Joey Porter said that rookie T.J. Watt is going to be starting for the Steelers this year, and that the plan going forward will be to use James Harrison, the 39-year-old veteran, as something of a relief pitcher, perhaps a specialist in select circumstances.

Head Coach Mike Tomlin somewhat contradicted that, telling reporters when (inevitably) asked about Porter’s comments that Harrison will be given as many snaps as he can handle. But he qualified that basically by saying that he is going to be the one that determines how many snaps he can handle, and not Harrison.

They basically gives him infinite wiggle room when it comes to answering the question. He could play every snap or he could play none and Tomlin’s comment will still be technically true. Now it’s obviously going to fall somewhere between all or none, but we just don’t know right now, and I don’t think that we can know.

There is still a lot to learn about this developing situation. Sure, Watt looked pretty good in his preseason debut, but that doesn’t predict that he is going to be a quality starter right off the bat. And we also don’t know what effect another year of age and wear and tear is going have on Harrison’s physical health and his performance.

Plans have a way of not working out, especially when Porter makes them. It doesn’t help that Porter’s plans have often come at the expense of Harrison’s playing time, and as we have found out, that is a difficult thing to take away.

The situation makes me wonder how much Watt’s fate is in his own hands. If he simply performs consistently and well, is he going to be left out on the field for virtually the entire game? That is what the Steelers did with their outside linebackers toward the end of last season.

But that is a lot to ask of a rookie, and the coaches should be mindful of the rookie wall. Bud Dupree was only a rotational player during his rookie season, but he openly talked about hitting the wall late in the year.

I could easily see that happening to Watt if he is asked to play too much too soon. But in that event, Harrison will be more well-rested than he would otherwise be, and ideally, he would be there to pick up the slack. Others have proposed from the beginning a similar plan by design, but it may work out that way naturally.

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