Former Steelers Linebacker James Harrison\’s Game Tough To Replicate

By Matthew Marczi

Although former Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison is now playing for the division rival Cincinnati Bengals, I think it is still safe to say that, for most fans, Harrison is and will always be a Steeler, having left an indelible mark on the organization and its history.

Adding to the love affair of Silverback is a recent article posted on the statistics website Pro Football Focus, which examines the top ten edge rushers over the past five seasons. While Harrison has had excellent stretches dating back to the year before his Defensive Player of the Year season in 2008, so much of the last five years has seen him slowed by back, neck, knee, and even facial injuries.

Despite all of the wear and tear that has diminished his productivity of late, however, PFF has still determined that Harrison was the top edge rusher throughout the entire league over the course of the last five seasons with a total score of +155, which just nudges past DeMarcus Ware of the Dallas Cowboys, who earned a score of +154.8. Here is what they had to say about Harrison:

What pushed Harrison to the top was his ability to do it all. The Steelers’ scheme asked a lot out of him, and more than you’d tend to require from a guy chiefly known as an edge rusher. Yet, not only did he impress dropping into coverage, but he was extremely productive rushing the passer, and a true force in the run game lining up chiefly as the right outside linebacker for the Steelers in each of his five years.

Indeed, if you look at our Pass Rushing Productivity Signature Stats you’ll see that among 3-4 outside linebackers Harrison finished first in 2008, third in 2009, fifth in 2010 and third again in 2011, before his play dropped off in 2012. That’s incredible pass rushing efficiency, and it’s backed up by some fantastic work in the run game where his five-year grade was the third highest of all.

A truly complete player, there hasn’t been another like him over the past five years.

Impressive accolades indeed, and something that points to an extremely underappreciated aspect of Harrison’s game, something that will be most difficult for the Steelers to replace of all: his ability to set the edge and play the run.

Just take a look at his total tackle numbers and see how many more plays he impacts than the average outside linebacker in a 3-4 system. Three times in his career he has reached at least 98 tackles, twice reaching 100. The only season that he finished with less than 70 tackles as a starter was in 2011, when he missed five games, and he still managed 59 tackles. Even last year, missing the first three games and playing his way into shape, he still amassed 70 tackles.

Compare those numbers to some of the other noted 3-4 outside linebackers in recent years. Ware, for example, second on the list, has twice reached 84 tackles and topped 70 on three occasions in his eight seasons; however, he tends to average closer to 60. Clay Matthews once reached 60 tackles, but did not top 51 in any of his other three years, though he too has been limited with injuries.

The young Von Miller is an exceptional talent at outside linebacker. His 30 sacks in two seasons is incredible, and his 132 total tackles in those two years is also above average for his position; but it is still not the level of impact that Harrison brings to run support.

Teammate LaMarr Woodley, who in fact finished seventh on the PFF list with a score of +96.9, twice reached 60 in 2008 and 2009. In 2011, he was on pace for 78 tackles before a hamstring injury ruined him for the rest of the year. But those are still not James Harrison numbers.

Perhaps the closest adversary is Terrell Suggs from the Baltimore Ravens. PFF, in fact, places Suggs at the top ranking against the run for his position. He has certainly performed consistently: since becoming a starter in 2004, excluding last season when he missed half the year, he dipped below 60 tackles just once, when he missed three games in 2009 and finished with 59 tackles.

Needless to say, tackle totals are far from the bottom line when it comes to an athlete’s ability to play the run in this game. But it is a simple measure to point to as a suggestion of an overall argument, and that is this: As the article from Pro Football Focus states, no player at his position over the past five seasons has been able to combine exceptional pass rushing skills with his ability to play the run. There truly hasn’t been another like him.

Oh, and lest we forget his exceptional playmaking ability, his 25 forced fumbles between 2007 and 2010 are a comfortable reminder. The Steelers will not simply find another James Harrison; his talent was too unique to replicate. And so the search begins by committee with Jason Worilds and Jarvis Jones.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • JohnnyV1

    There’s not doubt that Harrison was playing at a high level last half of 2012 season. Even less doubt about what he did before 2012. At 34/35, how much does he have left, 1yr, 2yrs? The task of replacing him in the defense may take a few different players to accomplish. Harrison was a beast!

  • 2443scott

    i feel james thought he could still play and i believe he could still but him comeing off the edge had surely been effected from injuries and age its just part of getting old and slowing down and steelers had to address it the steelers would kept him one more year if he only would of took pay cut but since he was coming to end his career he needed the money ….as far as playing for bengals this is where i get the grrrrrrrr at….first the bengals did need lber help and since james was ok for another year and since he was a steeler with knowing how steelers do def they could pick his mind and plus he knows steeler off play calls ….also this was a way to get under steelers skin by haveing him on their team so to them this was a no brainer they didnt want him for what he could do they wanted his brain ..and moving him from where he used to be on line wouldnt do much for james so he be just another hole plugger…and i think james also took job to poke a finger in the steeler eye of the owners after all he does have a nasty streak in him …but saying that i think only bengals were only team wanting him so it was a little of everything that left him fall to them ….and he still wanted to play either way i think he only play one season thats if he makes it through there training camp and preseason ….so him choosing the bengals i dont think he did it to hurt any steeler fan but more wanted to play and a little bit was he could give steelers a what for …

  • Stephen Dale

    Harrison was a great player and he’ll be remembered fondly ; however “TIME” is the great equalizer and , for the Steelers, it is time to move on. Good luck to Harrison as he finishes his career in Cincy.

  • Mike Amaro

    I don’t care what anyone says Harrison is no longer a steeler not matter what he has done for the organization….to me all that went out the door when he chose to leave and that goes for any player that has chosen to leave the organization to go play for another team.

  • walter mason

    I dont think there will be any controversy here about Harrison. He was a beast for sure and he should have played another year. But we have that cap thing. The forced fumbles will be missed most I think.

  • Mike Amaro

    Cap Thing? He was offered a contract and chose not to take it…..then turns around and tries to work something out……he doesn’t care about the organization or the city only what’s convenient for him.

  • dgh57

    Yes, good luck to J. Harrison except when we face him! LOL

    My eyes will be intently focused on Gilbert when we do, with very much trepidation I might add!

  • Jason White

    Good thing is Jarvis Jones showed a knack for forcing fumbles in college. Still its likely gonna be a year till we see Jarvis in the starting lineup unless Jason tanks (wouldn’t count on that happening) or if Jarvis just progresses so fast and overtakes Jason for the starting spot. (again I wouldn’t count on that happening in 2013)

  • steves

    Funny thing is James’s family still lives here and where he will live when he calls it quits. That is one of the reasons he went to Cincy wants to be close to them. He is a true Family man and that is one of the reasons he never went to see the Prez when they won the SB, he wanted to spend the time with his family.
    James could have made more money with the Steelers then what he is making at Cincy, his agent made a mistake and that is why James tried to work it out, but once the Steelers Brass makes a decision – thats it!
    Steelers will have another outside LB to take James spot and he will be fondly remembered by all of us.

  • steves

    James will have a field day on Gilbert, who is prone to “Look Out” blocks.

  • dgh57

    You are right. I forgot James is really going to be “FIRED UP” for this game! Therefore my edit from a bit to very much! ha ha

    I guess some TE or RB help would be a good idea for Mr. Gilbert!

  • Randy Neff

    Not quite on Jack Ham’s level, but was a very solid linebacker. Harrison took advantage of the mismatches when they presented themselves. He did struggle however against the elite LTS like Thomas and Long.

    Jones, if he works hard in the weight room and on technique, should put great numbers.

  • Brendon Glad

    I will never say anything bad about James Harrison no matter what happens. He was a pleasure to watch…he brought back some things to my fandom that Jack Lambert and Greg Lloyd helped formulate in my BEING as a Steelers fan.
    All I can say is: 1)I’m glad the Steelers respectfully tried to work with him 2) I’m glad he didn’t take the failed negotiations personally, and 3) I’m not happy he ended up with the Bengals.
    But that’s life. He’s a Steeler to me, forever…gonna be very weird watching him play us twice…(I just hope the officials let US hold him like every LT he ever played did to HIM all G-D game during his Steelers tenure)…that’s not too much to ask for.

  • Brendon Glad

    I think you are right 2443scott…Mike Brown is finally learning from his infinite number of mistakes. Because even though James Harrison wasn’t worth the 10-11 million for the Steelers, he doesn’t have to even make 5 sacks and 30 tackles to be completely worth it for them. Otherwise he would have just been sitting there, and as soon as our body-brittle OLB’s went down in about week 3, we would have been a callin’. Plus, he’s just a HUGE accountability factor in the locker room for that usual group of yay-whos…
    So…I’m really hoping I’m not pining for Harrison in early October, but the evidence suggests I might be.

  • charles

    Harrison was one of those players who, early in his stints with the Steelers, you hated to see cut. Interestingly, part of the reason was that his personality had a rough edge. That make no excuses for anybody attitude was what drove him to the top of his game. (Hayword’s fiestiness gives one hope). Unfortunately, experienced Qbs feasted on James in pass coverage the last couple of years and it was, truly, time to let the next generation take a shot.

  • VaDave

    IMO ( for whatever that’s worth), the biggest reason, health issues aside, for his drop in numbers, was the NFL decided to allowed offensive tackles to use the neck lock hold as a way to neutralize him for the sake of keeping QB in one piece. James was truly a once in a lifetime player, and I’m dang glad he was a Steeler.

  • Don

    And sadly for Big Ben, James AND Suggs will be chasing him around plenty this year. Hand it off Ben !!!