Harrison's Back 'Light Years' Better

James Harrison was a shell of his formerly fearsome self last year, but the 34-year-old told SCI.net publisher Jim Wexell that he's feeling much better this spring.

The Steelers' first practice of the spring had several highlights, as the post-workout throngs of media conferences on the field would indicate.

* There was Troy Polamalu being swallowed up by most of the reporting horde. He was explaining that he'll be attending the rest of the voluntary OTAs because it's his time to be a leader.

* And over there was Ben Roethlisberger explaining for the thousandth time that the new playbook will be a challenge but that he's up to it.

* And there was Willie Colon explaining that he felt fine playing left guard, and that the OTA line – consisting of Trai Essex and Jon Scott at left tackle, Maurkice Pouncey at center, Doug Legursky at right guard, and Marcus Gilbert at right tackle – will be fine, even though the first two draft picks will miss spring workouts because of an archaic rule that draws an imaginary line between the NFL and college academics.

* Coach Mike Tomlin even spoke after practice, and that drew another mob.

It was all an influence play – an old-fashioned sucker play, if you will – designed to allow the spring's most important question mark to slip around end untouched on his way to the sanctuary of the locker room.

But even a new beard didn't disguise James Harrison from one veteran reporter, who caught the Steelers' best pass-rusher – or formerly its best pass-rusher – from behind.

"There's a little ways to go, but I'm far, far, far better," Harrison said of his physical well-being this year compared to last.

"I'm closer to being normal, back to where I was before I injured myself, than I have been in a long time."

That breeze you just felt was the cumulative exhale of Steeler Nation, because Harrison's back surgery last year turned him into a shell of his former self.

When a back injury causes a precipitous decline in the performance of a 34-year-old whose game is based mainly on strength and leverage, there's reason for concern.

After all, last year's linebackers made fewer "splash plays" than any group of Steelers linebackers in the 30 years the team has utilized the 3-4 alignment.

LaMarr Woodley, of course, missed six games with a hamstring injury, but at age 27 there's little concern about his recovery.

Not so with Harrison, who underwent two surgical procedures 10 days apart in late February-early March of 2011 to remove part of a herniated disc that was pressing up against a nerve in his lower back. He couldn't work out, couldn't practice consistently, and worse he couldn't threaten quarterbacks consistently.

"I'm doing a whole lot better than I was last year," Harrison said. "I'm probably as good if not better, physically, than I was the year before."

Exactly how bad was it last year?

"It was terrible, man. Just making it through practices was hard. There'd be stretches when I could practice one day and wouldn't practice the next. Coach [Mike] Tomlin did the best he could to take care of me through training camp. There were some days where I wouldn't do anything the whole day. It was constant pain. The actual pain going down my leg was gone, but the pain from cutting my back and the muscles, the weakness, was just not all the way healed up and scarred up yet. The normal stuff was painful.

"To be honest the best thing that happened was my eye getting hurt. That gave me another four weeks to sit out. I did more therapy for my back to get it to heal than I did for my eye."

Harrison broke an orbital bone in his face and missed four games before coming back for Game 9 against Baltimore.

"I was probably 85 or 90 percent when I first came back from those four weeks off," Harrison said. "But then it just gradually started to get worse from the constant pounding."

The normal recovery period for the surgical procedure is 12 to 18 months. Harrison thought he could beat the norm before realizing he was merely human last season.

He's now nearing the end of Month 15 in his recovery and has permanently curtailed his legendary workout regimen.

"I'm still doing the workouts, but I'm not doing things three times a day anymore," he said. "I just can't do it. It's hurting more than it would be helping now, so I'm going twice a day.

"I'm still doing the same type of things I was doing before. I'm back to doing things I did before I was hurt. I'm getting a lot closer with the weights, of course, but as far as last year I'm light years beyond that."

Even though he played in pain and missed five games last season, Harrison still managed to tie Woodley for the team lead with 9 sacks. Three of those came against Baltimore in his return from the eye injury. He also had 3 sacks a month later against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Of course, none of those numbers impress Harrison.

"Yeah, well," he said dismissively, "hopefully myself and Wood can keep healthy and put a full year together."

That would make things a lot easier for the transitions occurring all around him.

And the beard? Will he grow it out a la Brett Keisel?

"I don't know. I'm deciding," Harrison said. "It depends how hot it gets."

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