The Pittsburgh Steelers’ best 3-4 outside linebacker in team history is—debatable, perhaps. Many will say that it’s unquestionably T.J. Watt, and there’s an excellent argument for that. Others will still contend that it was James Harrison, who had a dominant albeit relatively short run as one of the best players in the game.
Both have the claim to fame of being a Defensive Player of the Year Award winner. And they were teammates—somewhat briefly. But if Harrison had his way, they would have been lining up across from one another, and not just for self-motivated reasons.
He told former Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger on the latest episode of his Footbahlin podcast that he wanted to play across from Watt as a rookie back in 2017—and not just because the latter replaced the former in the starting lineup. It’s because he saw something from Watt on the left side, where the Steelers would move him after year one.
“I tried to do that, I ain’t gonna lie”, he told Roethlisberger when he mentioned how good they could have been together if they were on opposite sides. “T.J. had a move on his left that I saw in practice, where he’s at now. I was like, ‘Yo, why don’t y’all move T.J. to the left? I’m not saying I need to get in there, but he got a move on his left side that he can’t do on his right”.
Harrison’s career was winding down by the time the Steelers drafted Watt in the first round in 2017. They immediately plugged the rookie into that right side where Harrison played, head coach Mike Tomlin holding the veteran out throughout the season.
Watt proved to be worthy of a starting job as a rookie, without question, but it is also very likely true that Harrison was better than was Bud Dupree at that time, who admittedly was playing through injuries.
We don’t know all the behind-the-scenes politics that might have gone on, but Harrison spent most of that season on the inactive list, ostensibly because he didn’t play on special teams. He asked for his release several times, granted late in the year only because the Steelers had a roster move they wanted to make and used his roster spot.
As you surely know, he went on to sign with the New England Patriots, with whom he played liberally—including on special teams—before retiring after that season. The Steelers went on to have a successful pairing of Watt, now on the left side, with Dupree before he left in free agency.
Watt actually played on both sides fairly evenly while he was in college, so it wasn’t as though he came in as a right-side-only rusher. But with the young Dupree still developing on the left and Harrison nearing the end of his career being held out of practice on the right, that’s where the reps were.
There was talk of Watt moving to the left side even as a rookie, but understandably the coaches didn’t want to make that move in-season, throwing him for a loop when they were already asking him to do so much while playing a position he was still learning.
But boy, it sure would have been fun to see Watt and Harrison lining up for a full season together, even if one was past his prime and the other wasn’t in it yet.