Steelers re-sign linebacker Harrison
Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin called the decision to sign James Harrison “simple and easy.”
Figuring out how — and just as important when — to use the five-time Pro Bowl linebacker, well, that part is a little trickier.
The Steelers brought the 36-year-old Harrison out of retirement on Tuesday to give an injury depleted group some needed depth and a locker room in need of some intensity an added jolt.
Harrison, who seemed to end his 12-year NFL career during an impromptu news conference Sept. 5, will provide plenty of both. How quickly he sees the field, however, remains uncertain.
“We need to see what he is capable of doing before we etch out any roles for him or others,” Tomlin said Tuesday.
The Steelers (2-1) reached out to Harrison after young linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier went down in Sunday night’s 37-19 win at Carolina.
Jones underwent surgery Tuesday for a broken wrist.
The team placed their first-round pick in the 2013 draft on the injured reserve/return list, meaning he’ll be eligible to come back in eight weeks. Shazier’s sprained right knee likely won’t keep him out as long, though Tomlin ruled out the rookie for this week’s game against Tampa Bay (0-3).
Sean Spence will likely take over for Shazier. While Arthur Moats played well filling in for Jones — recording a sack in the second half as the Steelers pulled away — the injuries left the Steelers thin at a positon they considered a strength in the preseason.
Enter Harrison, whom the Steelers released in the spring of 2013 after he declined to take a pay cut. The 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year eventually signed with Cincinnati, where he played in a diminished role as the Bengals won the AFC North. He finished with two sacks and an interception in 15 games before getting cut in March.
He remained in training throughout the preseason but couldn’t find work and signed a one-day contract with Pittsburgh on Sept. 5 so he could retire a Steeler. Harrison cited the need to be closer to his two sons as a major factor in his decision. That shouldn’t be a problem now. The Harrisons live in a Pittsburgh suburb.
Harrison will join a locker room that’s undergone an extensive makeover in the 18 months since his departure, particularly on defense. Only three starters — linebacker Lawrence Timmons, safety Troy Polamalu and defensive end Brett Keisel — remain from the 2012 season.
A fourth, cornerback Ike Taylor, broke his right forearm Sunday night and is out indefinitely.
Tomlin allowed it may take a bit for Harrison to get his bearings.
“There is comfort in that familiarity but at the same time there are some new, integral pieces to our football team,” Tomlin said. “He has an understanding of that. It will be fun to kind of watch him work his way back into the group.”
Recent history hints it might not take long. Pittsburgh declined to re-sign Keisel over the spring only to call him when the defensive line struggled early in the preseason. He was back on the field nine days later, playing in the exhibition finale against the Panthers.
Harrison, like Keisel, is well past his prime. Yet the Steelers are optimistic his savvy and experience can make an impact on a defense that is still finding its way. Pittsburgh needed three games to record a turnover, though the pass rush showed signs of improvement while getting to Cam Newton three times on Sunday night.
The schedule gives the Steelers some flexibility. They face the hapless Buccaneers then travel to winless Jacksonville. Two weeks might be all that’s necessary for Harrison to find his niche.
It’s unlikely the Steelers would put him at the top of the depth chart based simply on his resume.