By Matthew Marczi
Even though he may not have been given the biggest contract out of those who left the Pittsburgh Steelers this year via free agency, James Harrison was certainly the greatest. Mike Wallace may have gotten $60 million from the Miami Dolphins—and that is fair market value for his services at his age in today’s NFL—it is unlikely that he will ever be as great as Harrison once was.
Even though Harrison was only a full-time starter for the Steelers for six years, nobody on the team impacted their success—aside from Ben Roethlisberger—more than he. An argument could be made for Troy Polamalu, who at his best in 2008 and 2010 helped lead the Steelers to the Super Bowl. In fact, Harrison won the Defensive Player of the Year award in ’08, and Polamalu claimed it in ’10. But Polamalu has simply missed too much of the past six years to have had the same impact.
Much of Harrison’s back story is already well known, such that it does not need to be recounted exhaustively. Suffice it to say that, although injuries have slowed him in recent years, and even kept him off the field for seven games in the last two years (plus another due to suspension), his play on the field when healthy will not be duplicated by anybody who attempts to take his place on this roster, whether it is Jason Worilds, Jarvis Jones, Chris Carter, or Adrian Robinson.
In James Harrison, you are talking about a player who made four consecutive All-Pro teams when healthy between 2007 and 2010, and also received a Pro Bowl nod in 2011, despite missing five games that season. It is well known that he battled injuries in 2012 that limited his productiveness, but he began to round into form late in the season and finished tied for the team lead in sacks with six.
More importantly, Harrison has perennially been one of the Steelers’ most prolific playmakers, as well as one of its most unspoken grinders. His 29 fumbles since 2007 (his first year as a starter) rank second in the league behind Chicago Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, whose absurd 10 forced fumbles last year pushed him into the league.
It is fair to point out that only four of Harrison’s forced fumbles have come in the past two seasons. That speaks both to how exceptional he was from 2007 to 2010 when he was closer to full health, and also to how much his performance has diminished over time.
Although, again, that includes missing eight games over the past two years, and playing through injuries. Of course, it also makes his nine sacks in 11 games in 2011 that much more impressive.
What nobody will match is Harrison’s play against the run. I have previously written about Harrison’s ability to stop the run, so it is not necessary to regurgitate much of it here, but suffice it to say that averaging nearly six tackles per start for a 3-4 outside linebacker is rather uncommon.
In his Defensive Player of the Year season in 2008, he averaged 6.73 tackles per game, finishing the year with 101 tackles in 15 games, to go along with a career-high 16 sacks, seven forced fumbles, a safety, and an interception.
Jason Worilds is, in all likelihood, the first one to get a crack at trying to replace Harrison. While he will never match Harrison’s pass rushing proficiency in his prime, he did best him in that category a season ago, and it is fair to mention that Worilds dealt with his own injury early on as well. In fact, in 2011, Worilds was ranked by Pro Football Focus as the seventh best pass rusher in terms of pressure per snap.
Worilds, in his ten career starts, has also been a slightly more efficient tackler, missing just one on running plays in his career. Where he lacks Harrison’s skill, however, is in pure run stopping, where Harrison continues to rank near the top of the league, despite various injuries. In fact, Worilds was ranked just 23rd out of 34 outside linebackers last year in run stop percentage. For comparison, Harrison was ranked third.
Interestingly, despite the small sample size, Worilds did make some strides in his coverage skills. In 2011, PFF had him giving up the eighth most receptions per coverage snap, and the sixth most yards per coverage snap, at his position. Last year, he was ranked second and fourth overall in those categories, respectively, numbers that topped Harrison’s—though not drastically, as Harrison ranked fourth and eighth in those same areas.
There are still three great unknowns about Worilds. First and foremost is if he can endure a full 16 game schedule as a starter. He played in every game in 2012, but he only made three starts. Secondly, it is unclear what kind of player he is capable of being as a week to week, consistent starter. Finally, the bulk of his starts, and his success, have come in replace of LaMarr Woodley on the left side. Can that translate to success on the right side?
Despite all of the questions surrounding Worilds, however, there are even more surrounding Jarvis Jones. From his own long-term health issues, to his underwhelming workout numbers, to questions about how he was used as a centerpiece in college translating to the Steelers’ scheme, there are many who wonder if he will have success in this league. And, in fact, some would suggest that the odds are against him, although whether one chooses to put stock in that predictor is another matter.
There will be plenty of time during this offseason for Jarvis Jones to write his own story. As of now, there is no pro tape on him, so, as with Le’Veon Bell, there is only so much to be said based on OTA reports. And all expectations are that, barring injury, he will not start as a rookie. But his pass rushing skills may be tested in year one in certain sub-packages. Given his size, it is unlikely that he could achieve the amount of sheer pressure that Harrison did in his prime, so it will be interesting to see if and how Jones expands his pass rushing repertoire during the season.