09/14/2013 10:56 AM
So far this fall, Cincinnati Bengals linebacker James Harrison has experienced something that has eluded him the last several Septembers. He's been at full and complete health. "I feel better than I have in a long time, maybe since 2009 or 2010," the five-time Pro Bowl defender said in a news conference Friday.
In recent years, while manning one of the two outside linebacker positions in the Pittsburgh Steelers' famed 3-4 defense, Harrison was hindered at the start of seasons with back and knee problems. A nagging knee injury last year forced him to miss the first three games, perhaps unfairly earning him the designation of being labeled a 34-year-old professional football player who was seeing the twilight of his career fast approaching.
Even as he played through those health issues to still tie for the team lead in sacks by season's end, that chatter persisted. Some believe it was the real reason the Steelers decided this past offseason to deem Harrison so far beyond his prime that he couldn't be resigned. In March, they dumped the man who was a key member of their last two Super Bowl teams.
Not long after, Cincinnati came calling. You know the rest.
Monday night, with all of America watching, Harrison will be pitted against his old Steelers teammates for the first time since his rocky divorce from them seven months ago. While the much anticipated showdown between Harrison and Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger has been among the more intriguing storylines of the game, Harrison doesn't understand why it has been a topic of conversation this week in the first place.
"I don't pay attention to it," Harrison said. "I'm answering questions about this game because it's this week's game. Last week, I was answering questions about Chicago because that was that week's game. Whoever we play next week, I'll answer questions about them."
He added that he didn't even know who the Bengals were playing next week. That's how focused he is on this game. (For the record, Green Bay comes to town six days after the Steelers leave.)
Against the Bears last Sunday, a rejuvenated Harrison played just 38 of the Bengals' 61 defensive snaps. That meant he was in on about 62.3 percent of Cincinnati's plays. That percentage was slightly smaller than the 84.1 percent he averaged playing while with the Steelers the past nine seasons, but he wasn't surprised by it. When the Bengals were courting him in April, they told Harrison he'd play about 40 snaps per game. He expects that trend to continue.
One other trend involving Harrison the Bengals hope continues Monday night has to do with his ability to sack Roethlisberger. For one game, one year, while the two now-former NFL teammates were in college, they shared a football field as opponents.
"We always had a lot of arguments about when he was at Kent [State] and I was at Miami," Roethlisberger remembered. "He claims that he sacked me like six times in a game."
Certainly he never did, right, Ben? "Of course not," Roethlisberger said, laughing. "He may have gotten me once or twice, but not as many as he thought."
Turns out Harrison may have the better memory. The lone game the two competed in came Nov. 24, 2001, in a late-season game at Kent State. That afternoon, in a 24-20 win for the Golden Flashes, Harrison, a senior, was in on five sacks. He had three solo sacks and assisted on two more as Kent State slowed a freshman Roethlisberger. "I had a halfway decent game, I guess," Harrison said. "He jokes that he's the reason I'm in the league."
Whatever motivated the Steelers to ultimately sign Harrison after waiving and releasing him multiple times, the Bengals are now thankful they did.
"In this defense, we didn't finish where we finished last year because we're soft. He fits in well. He brings in another tough body on this defense," Bengals cornerback Terence Newman said. "In that aspect, it's fun to go out and watch him play."
All indications are that Fernando Velasco will get the call a week after signing with the team. Velasco has made a quantum leap since immersing himself in the Steelers’ playbook, and his playing center would allow the team to use Kelvin Beachum as a sixth lineman/eligible receiver.
The Steelers had planned to use Beachum extensively in that role in the season opener, but the second-year man had to take over at center after Maurkice Pouncey went down with a season-ending knee injury. The Steelers signed Velasco, who started 13 games at center for the Titans in 2012, and he appears to have a strong enough grasp of the offense to play against the Bengals.
“I’ve never seen a guy come in and pick up an offense that fast,” Steelers running back Isaac Redman said. “I haven’t seen him mess up one play.” Velasco has spent so much time in his playbook away from the Steelers’ practice facility that he hadn’t turned on the TV in his hotel room until Thursday night. He took a brief break from studying to watch the Jets-Patriots game. “A lot of the schemes here are the same ones we ran in Tennessee,” Velasco said Friday after practice. “I’m just trying to get the terminology down.”
Steelers starting cornerback Cortez Allen (ankle) missed practice for the third consecutive day, and the third-year man is unlikely to play Monday night in Cincinnati.
Rookie running back Le’Veon Bell (foot) won’t play against the Bengals after missing practice on Friday. Also not expected to play is tight end Heath Miller (knee), who was again a limited participant in practice.
The Steelers got some good news on the injury front when starting nose tackle Steve McLendon (hamstring) and kicker Shaun Suisham (hamstring) were able to practice fully after being limited on Thursday.
The Steelers signed veteran kicker Shayne Graham last Monday in case Suisham is unable to play against the Bengals. The Steelers don’t have to make a decision on Suisham’s availability until a couple of hours before kickoff on Monday night.