James Harrison and the Pittsburgh Steelers did not part on good terms in the middle of the 2017 season, despite their long history together going back 15 years. Reduced, rightly or wrongly, to a backup role who spent most of his time inactive, there were reports of his becoming insubordinate behind the scenes, and he admitted that he asked to be released, a request that was not granted until it naturally arose when the team needed a roster spot.
While things ended badly, whatever fences may or may not have needed mending at the time have since been mended, and a lot of bad blood that may have existed among fans has cooled, on both sides of the argument.
One thing that struck me from that time were comments made by Bud Dupree, then in his third season, who had some harsh things to say about Harrison, including suggesting that he refused to be a mentor to the young outside linebackers—something the Steelers specifically talked about him being when they re-signed him that offseason. T.J. Watt, who was their rookie first-round pick that year who started over Harrison and was the reason he was inactive, saw it a bit differently.
“Deebo was a really good mentor when I was in the building with him”, he told Bryant McFadden recently on the All Things Covered podcast. He also praised Harrison’s signature pass-rush move, which he has adopted into his own arsenal. “He’s got that rip, armbar type of move that he had like the back of his hand on that right side”, he said, and McFadden asked him to describe it.
A lot of times he would align wide. He would be like a wide-9, so he would be outside the tackle. As the ball’s about to be snapped, he would scoot down, almost head-up on the tackle so it looks like he’s gonna be going inside of the tackle.
So the tackle tries to jump-set him, and as the tackle’s punching his chest, he just grabs that arm and walks around like a Merry-Go-Round and just goes right to the quarterback and sacks him every time.
It’s crazy. They know what move’s coming and they just can’t stop it. I remember in Kansas City, we put him in late in the game and he got the sack that basically sealed the game. That was my rookie year. And that was the move. We were like, he’s gonna do the move, just watch it work. And sure enough, one or two pass-rush reps in, he had a sack.
That was a 19-13 win in Kansas City back in Week 6, game six of the 2017 season. Harrison was inactive for three of the previous four games. He played sparingly during the game, but was put in at the end to close it out, and he got the sack against Alex Smith on 3rd and 10, forcing a 4th and 18 that fell incomplete. Turnover on downs. Two knees. Steelers win.
It’s too bad that wasn’t the last moment of Harrison’s Steelers career. He dressed for two more games, and was inactive for six before he was released, signing with the New England Patriots, for whom he would play a much larger role. He even played in the Super Bowl, though they lost.
Earlier this year, Watt broke Harrison’s franchise single-season sack record of 16, currently at 17.5. After the game in which the record was broken, Harrison celebrated the accomplishment and encouraged him to go on and push for the NFL record of 22.5 sacks.