CINCINNATI — Vinnie Rey was feeling a little confined sitting at his locker Wednesday afternoon. The Bengals’ linebacker has a spacious enough area on most days but he’s got a new neighbor this year in James Harrison.
When James Harrison is talking, people are listening. It goes for his teammates and for us media types as well.
Harrison has been working out with his new team for a couple of weeks now. There’s been a lot of discussion about the 35-year-old Harrison moving out of the Pittsburgh 3-4 zone blitz defensive scheme into the 4-3 base that the Bengals and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer use, is it really that big of a deal and what can Harrison add to this unit.
There are no real answers to these questions after less than three weeks but Harrison is making an impression.
“It was cool just to see him. He’s a physically imposing guy,” said Rey, who has gone from undrafted college free agent to being a top special teams player. “Being with him in the weight room, getting to speak with him one-on-one and then getting to be around him as he speaks with other guys, I feel like I pick up on things on just how to be a professional.”
Zimmer said Harrison is fitting right into the scheme of things on the field as well as in the meeting room and locker room. The heart of the defense centers on the youngsters on the defensive line with Geno Atkins, Michael Johnson and Carlos Dunlap. Its foundation has been set with veterans Domata Peko, Robert Geathers and Leon Hall.
“I think the team concept to him is very important and like everybody I think the better the team does the better you do, and the better you do the better the team does,” said Zimmer. “I think they all want to have success but from what I’ve seen so far, he values the team concept which is what I try to preach every day in the room.”
Harrison had six sacks last season in Pittsburgh and has 64 for his career. The overwhelming majority of the sacks the Bengals have gotten in the five seasons Zimmer has been running the defense has come from the defensive linemen. Some quick researching by Joe Reedy of the Enquirer showed that linebackers have had just 21 sacks for the Bengals the past five seasons. Harrison has had 51.5 sacks in that same time frame.
Part of this period of OTA work and then the mandatory minicamp (June 11-13) is about figuring out how to best use Harrison’s strengths with an already productive defensive unit.
“With some of the stuff they’re doing it looks like I may be rushing a little more than in previous years,” said Harrison. “Zim has some defenses drawn up. Schemes that actually benefit if they do call to me and if they don’t call to me. Especially with Geno and everybody else having an extremely good time rushing, it’s going to be different.”
Most of the Bengals knew James Harrison only from the twice-a-year matchups they had against the Steelers. They’re still learning about him as much as he is learning about them.
“He’s such a force when he’s out there,” said quarterback Andy Dalton. “You know where he is. Not only because he’s such a good player but because he wears that dark visor and looks tough. He’s a great player who has been good for a long time. I thought it was a great addition for us.”
So does Peko.
“I said hi to him a couple of times after games but I just knew he’s a headhunter,” said Peko. “He goes out there and lays it out on the field 100 percent every play and that’s someone we like to have on our team. That’s something that coach Zimmer preaches out here, to leave it out on the field, give 100 percent every play and get your butts to the ball. He’s been doing that since he’s been here. He’s fitting right in and we’ve gotten better as a defense.”