Harrison returning to Pittsburgh in stripes

CINCINNATI — Is James Harrison a living, breathing, 300-acupuncture-needle-taking oxymoron?

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis described the linebacker as a “respectful bully” this week. After thinking about that one for a second or two, scratching your head and then uncurling your eyebrows, it’s not a bad description.
 
Nobody likes a bully, unless he’s playing on your football team and helping your team win. James Harrison has helped the Bengals win this season no matter how much he has played in a game. What was already a good defense has benefitted from Harrison’s presence on the field, in the locker room and in the meeting rooms. It is a better unit because of Harrison.

Harrison isn’t a fan of the media and outside distractions. That doesn’t make him a bad guy. He’s just focused. Very focused.

Harrison returns to Pittsburgh for the first time this Sunday as the enemy. For nine seasons he was the embodiment of what it meant to be a defensive player for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harrison was to the defense what Hines Ward was to Pittsburgh’s offense. You didn’t have to like him but you had to respect him and how he prepares and plays the game. It’s always on the edge of that line between hard-nosed sportsmanship and over-aggression.

He’s not necessarily out to hurt someone but if someone is in his way he’s going to take the most direct path to the ball.

“He’s going to be gruff about everything he can be,” said Lewis in trying to describe what he meant by respectful bully. “That’s his fun. We spend a lot of time together and guys have to have fun. That’s his fun, to always be on edge, to keep people on edge.”

Harrison deserves a warm, enthusiastic welcome from the Steelers crowd when he comes out onto the field. He meant too much to the accomplishments and success of the franchise the past decade.

“Hopefully (he gets) a good one. James did a lot of great things here. A lot of those No. 1 defenses were in large part to the efforts of James Harrison,” said Pittsburgh safety Ryan Clark. “Hopefully they cheer him. (Miami wide receiver) Mike Wallace got booed last week but his situation was a lot different than James’ situation. So hopefully they give him the reception he deserves.”

Once the game kicks off, he will be just another guy wearing a striped helmet.

Harrison missed practice on Thursday with an illness. He usually makes himself available to the media on Thursdays but due to the illness wasn’t around the locker room today.

He has expressed previously that he doesn’t care much how he is welcomed Sunday night or in any other game. It’s a sentiment pretty much everyone else around him repeated.

“I hadn’t really thought about it, and I’m sure he hasn’t either,” said Pittsburgh coach Mike Tomlin about the fan reaction. “If anybody knows James, it’s me and I promise you James is not overly concerned about the reception.”

What Harrison is concerned with is helping the Bengals get another win. That would push them to 10-4 on the season and put them on the brink of locking up the AFC North division. It also keeps them in contention for the No. 2 seed in the AFC and a bye in the first round of the playoffs.

Harrison’s playing time has fluctuated this season. When the season began he was expected to play mostly in the base defense as an outside linebacker, meaning he would be getting limited snaps. He played just 14 defensive snaps against the Steelers when the Bengals beat them 20-10 on Sept. 16. As the season has gone on, injuries and game situations change. Harrison saw his most extensive action of the season last week against Indianapolis, playing in 52 of the 60 snaps against the Colts.

The loss of defensive tackle Geno Atkins to a torn ACL has had defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer looking for other options when it comes to pressuring quarterbacks and stopping the run. That’s Harrison’s wheelhouse. His interception against Cleveland flipped momentum and helped turn a 13-0 deficit into a 31-13 halftime lead and eventual 41-20 win.
 
“For me as a coach, he’s a good guy to have who really has helped the young group of linebackers continue to prepare and push forward like a pro, and not allow them to have the ups and downs that seem to creep in when you have young players too much. His eyes are on the target, and that’s a good thing,” said Lewis.

Vontaze Burfict has taken notes from Harrison. Their lockers are cattycorner from each other at PBS. How they play the game is similar. How Burfict approaches playing has been shaped by being around Harrison the past seven months.

Burfict is interested in how Heinz Field reacts to Harrison.

“I am pretty sure there will be some boos and probably cheering going on,” said Burfict. “That’s the game. That’s the NFL. I am pretty sure I’m going to be walking out with him so I can absorb that. It’s going to be great for him to go back there and be able to play against his crowd. I am kind of excited to see if there is going to be more cheers or boos.”

So are a lot of people. James Harrison just won’t be one of them.