CINCINNATI – James Harrison doesn’t consider himself to be the missing piece to the Bengals. As a player who has played in three Super Bowls, been a part of winning two NFL championships and is a former NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Harrison has the credentials to speak of what is missing.
“I don’t really think it’s a piece, it’s more consistency. Being more consistent. I’ll leave it at that,” said Harrison on Tuesday, shortly after the Bengals announced that the former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker was now playing for them.
In a free agency period dominated by the Bengals re-signing their own, adding Harrison to the defensive fold has the potential to pay dividends on multiple fronts. On the field, Harrison has 64 career sacks in nine seasons and he’s shown the ability to play all three downs and do so with productive intensity. Off the field, the Bengals linebacker group can count only Rey Maualuga and Aaron Maybin as players who have been in the NFL more than three seasons.
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As second-year linebacker Emmanuel Lamur said Tuesday: “It’s a win-win.”
Pittsburgh released Harrison last month when the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement on re-structuring Harrison’s contract, which had two more years remaining. Harrison also spoke with Baltimore and, during his visit with the Bengals, worked out for coaches to prove an injured knee that forced him to miss the first three games of the season was in good shape.
Harrison’s deal with the Bengals is for two years and offers him a chance to stay in the AFC North.
“I don’t have a chip on my shoulder against the Steelers. I don’t hate the Steelers. All the things that they’re saying, the media is blowing it up to be,” said Harrison. “Am I disappointed? Yeah, I’m disappointed. But when the negotiations first started, I basically knew the situation was going to be what it was going to be. My compromise wasn’t going to come to theirs and theirs wasn’t going to come to mine, which made business sense for them.”
Harrison will continue to wear his familiar No. 92 – he negotiated with defensive end Jamaal Anderson, who will now be No. 90, for the jersey number rights – and play the SAM linebacker spot for the Bengals. The Bengals play a base 4-3 compared to the Steelers’ 3-4 zone blitz alignment but neither player nor organization sees an issue with switching schemes.
“James is a linebacker,” said Bengals linebacker coach Paul Guenther. “You will find a fit for the guy. You try to get him a fit where he will fit best. Get him to do what he does best. We’ll work with him during the offseason and get him up to speed with our scheme and techniques. He’s played linebacker all his life. 3-4, 4-3 it’s all overblown really.”
Since coming to Cincinnati in 2008, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has had success getting production from older players who were on their second or third teams. Middle linebacker Dhani Jones came to the Bengals after the start of the 2007 season and led it in tackles for three straight seasons. Safety Chris Crocker helped stabilize the secondary on two different occasions, including last season. Cornerbacks Nate Clements and Terence Newman fit that same mold.
Harrison spoke with Jones before making his decision to join the Bengals. They talked about the conversations that Harrison had held with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
“Just meeting (Lewis) and talking to him a few times, I really liked what he was saying,” said Harrison. “I thought I had a good understanding, I just wanted to talk to somebody who knew him better and was actually in the Cincinnati organization and knew the organization better than just me on a visit, to get a feel exactly if this is what it is, if what I’m seeing is what it is or if it’s something else.”
Harrison, 34, came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent, signed originally by the Steelers out of Kent State in 2002. The Akron native played in NFL Europe for two seasons before getting his first shot in an NFL regular season game in 2004. His role gradually grew with Pittsburgh, as has often been the case with Steelers players over the years, from backup and special teams role player to that of starter. He took that role even further, earning the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award from the Associated Press in 2008. He has twice been named first team AP All-Pro.
He helped the Steelers win Super titles in 2005 and 2008 and get to the championship game in the 2010 season.
Out of the eight other linebackers currently on the Bengals’ roster, five of them entered the league as undrafted free agents. That includes Lamur and Vontaze Burfict, who started alongside Maualuga in last season’s playoff loss at Houston. Burfict led the Bengals in tackles last season.
“We’ve got a bunch of athletes in the linebacker room with me and Rey and Emmanuel, (Dontay) Moch,” said Burfict. “He can back up for anyone and we can back up for him. It just takes less pressure off some of the people he had. He’s been in the league for so long and he can teach some of the young guys, especially me, how to get better and how to take care of your body.”
Harrison has the reputation of being one of the game’s most aggressive players. There has no doubt been an over-aggressive nature to his play at times, as evidenced by multiple fines levied against him by the NFL, but that overshadows how consistently good Harrison has been over the years and, he figures, he’ll continue to be for at least two more seasons with the Bengals.
“The term leadership, for me, means leading by example. It’s going out there and showing and doing things that you want guys to do,” said Harrison. “You can talk and you can make it sound good but you probably can’t play the game. You can talk, you can make it sound good but you’re probably not going to be in there grinding, working out for two hours a day at 6:30, six o’clock in the morning. Anybody can talk.”