Bengals training camp preview: Linebackers

James Harrison gives the Bengals a defensive presence and could take some of the pressure off Rey Maualuga.

The Bengals open their 2013 training camp Thursday at Paul Brown Stadium. The team has made the playoffs each of the last two seasons but each time it has been a short-lived trip to Houston for a disappointing end in an AFC wild card game.

The roster is in a solid state and there is no reason to think this team can’t again make another push for the postseason but the expectations are for more than another first-round appearance.

Fox Sports Ohio will take a look at some position battles and areas of interest for the Bengals leading up to training camp with an eye on how things could play out and what it means for the season to come.

Today: How does James Harrison fit into the defense?

The Bengals didn’t stray far into the free agent market this offseason, focusing on retaining their own players over the lure of others brought up elsewhere in the NFL. The one main exception to that philosophy was James Harrison.

Harrison and his No. 92 will forever be linked to the Pittsburgh Steelers but when he and them couldn’t reach an agreement on a restructured contract that link was temporarily severed. The Bengals have seen plenty of Harrison from the opposite side of the field, worked up enough schemes in the attempt to block him to know what he is still capable of at the age of 35. How that capability translates into their defensive system will be one of the keys to the 2013 season.

Harrison’s effect on the defense and the entire team could be felt on the intangible side as well.

He is a presence on the field and in the locker room. James Harrison is a player who walks the talk. He’s been there and done that and he didn’t come by all of his career accolades by favor. He wasn’t drafted out of college. He spent time on the Pittsburgh practice squad, was released by both the Steelers and Baltimore Ravens and played in NFL Europe before making his way onto the Pittsburgh 53-man roster for good in 2004.

Two Super Bowl championships in three trips to the NFL title game, one NFL Defensive MVP award, two first-team All-Pro selections to go along with five trips to the Pro Bowl and 64 career sacks is what Harrison brings with him to a defense that has the potential be one of the best in the league for some time to come.

That should help everyone, especially middle linebacker Rey Maualuga.

Maualuga was one of those players re-signed in the offseason. It was a surprise to some but he has the full backing of head coach Marvin Lewis and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer. With Harrison now in the room, maybe some of that harsh spotlight will come off of Maualuga. With Harrison now in the room, maybe Maualuga stops listening to outside critics and plays with more consistency.

“I think the negative spotlight is pointed at Rey most of the time,” said Zimmer. “Honestly, I think if we all play good, then everybody will end up getting praise or whatever it is. People can pick whoever. I had a bad call on third down or whatever. That’s just everyone else’s opinion.

“I think I’ve been an expert at this – or tried to be an expert at this job – for a long time, and I like the things that he does. As far as Harrison being here, I think it will be good for us. I don’t know that necessarily it’s good for Rey or not good for Rey. What we’re trying to do is we care about us. That’s the kind of guys that I like to have here.”

Harrison will play the SAM linebacker spot and be used to add to an already formidable pass rush. Vontaze Burfict, coming off an All-Rookie season when he led the team in tackles, will play the WILL spot. Burfict had a quiet offseason, and that’s not a bad thing. The attention has been focused on Harrison and Maualuga, allowing Burfict to work on improving his game.

Aside from Harrison, this is a young position group. Emmanuel Lamur went from being on the practice squad the first seven weeks last season to starting as the SAM in the playoff game at Houston. He’s had a full offseason to add muscle to a lean frame and looked like a new person during open locker rooms. Fourth-round pick Sean Porter and third-year player Vinnie Rey, who is one of the top special teams players, will be at the front of crowded battle for backup spots.

They will all be able to look up to Harrison.

“A guy can ask me anything. I’ll tell him the truth,” said Harrison. “It may not be what he wants to hear, but it’s an approach of being a professional. Your job is to play football.”

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