Can James Harrison Carry Steelers Defense?

The cuts have been made and the bottom half of the roster remains in flux. But what about this leaky Steelers defense? Can anyone save it?

I was going to write a column criticizing Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh Steelers for keeping a pair of developmental players who can't help him on his 53-man roster.

I was going to write that these guys should develop just like everyone else destined to clear waivers -- as a member of the practice squad.

I was going to write that before I remembered interviewing one of them, former Boston College quarterback Tyler Murphy, at the beginning of last week.

It was brief but I could tell he was sharp. The rookie wide receiver was humble yet focused on answering the questions, and I remember walking away thinking that he's as smart as a major college starting quarterback should be.

And Roosevelt Nix, I hadn't talked to him at all this offseason. Everyone else did the story of the converted defensive tackle from Kent State with the soft hands and lead-blocker's build, so I didn't feel the need to bother. Nor did I need to bother someone who couldn't possibly make the squad as a backup fullback.

But he did.

I was going to write how the Steelers went out of their way to carve a path for these two undrafted rookies, and that I couldn't see why. But then I remembered how proud the quiet and powerfully built Nix was the day he walked past reporters on his way to the cafeteria with James Harrison at his side.

"Kent State's in the house," I said to Harrison as he walked by.

Harrison turned and looked at me. Didn't say anything. Just looked.

That's as much of an acknowledgement as reporters get from Harrison.

But Kent State was in the house.

So with that early-August snapshot, I relent to early-September thinking that the roster will take care of itself and that it's probably wise of the Steelers to give a couple of young, high-character players a taste of The Show.

There are bigger problems to worry about anyway, since Tom Brady will be eyeballing those safeties like he eyeballed Anthony Smith in a wild scene at Gillette Stadium a few years ago, one that can certainly be replicated Thursday night.

Because the defense stinks, right?

Well, it did for much of the preseason, so no one would be surprised if a supercharged Brady carves up that Steelers defense Thursday night.

But that won't mean things can't, or won't, get better.

Tomlin, the old secondary coach/defensive coordinator, was asked at Saturday's press conference if he ever had a defense that went from bad to good during the course of a season.

"I think that occurs every year," he said. "I’m excited about getting going with this group. We obviously have some questions that need to be answered with them, but they will answer them soon enough."

And then another snapshot of Harrison came to mind, this one of him going crazy on the sideline the other night over the long kickoffs from new kicker Josh Scobee. And that led to another snapshot of Harrison and Antonio Brown, at the end of that butt-ugly fifth preseason game, exhorting the guys who were going to be cut in 12 hours.

It reminded me that Harrison was -- no, IS -- the leader of this team, or at least the defensive side of this team, and that thought was comforting.

At the start of OTAs, Harrison said the coaching staff wanted him to become more vocal this season. Of course, that's not his style. He can respond to your commentary or question with just a look, and you get his drift. But I asked Tomlin on Saturday how that "more vocal" thing was working out between Harrison and the young defense.

"It’s more about what James does as opposed to what he says," Tomlin said. "We just continually try to remind him that there is a lot of weight in what he says, and he can provide a lot of positive direction for young people with his words. But James is not a big talker. He is more of a doer. I buy into that in a big way. When you watch him, he provides a blueprint on how to go about day-to-day business both on the field and off."

Like posting a photo of his workout with Anthony Chickillo -- the rookie outside linebacker, a mere 6B draft pick -- the other day after Chickillo had made the team.

How, Tomlin was asked, are the young linebackers reacting to Harrison's leadership?

"There’s no question that they gravitate to him," Tomlin said. "Most of those guys grew up on him. Bud Dupree was probably sitting around in a onesie pajama set when he watched James run down that sideline in Tampa a number of years ago. They hold that type of regard for him. So what he says or does they try to mimic. That’s just good, sharp football for young people."

Whether it's a snapshot of Harrison walking with the backup rookie fullback, or of him cheering wildly for the fourth-stringers, or of him lifting with a lightly regarded rookie the morning after said rookie had made the team, it's clear Harrison is this defense's leader. And there's nothing phony about it. He's all too real, like that snapshot from Tampa.

But there's another snapshot we should remember from the preseason, one of him on the field, which probably makes it a little bit more important. It's the one of Harrison sacking the great Aaron Rodgers for a safety.

Perhaps we've been too stuck on the last two preseason games. Perhaps we are forgetting that the Steelers' real dress rehearsal occurred against the Green Bay Packers, when the Steelers recorded their best third-down defense in five preseason first halves, and yielded their lowest yardage and point totals in the first halves of the last four preseason games. Those stats mean a little something since the Packers presented the Steelers with the best offensive opposition of the entire preseason.

Harrison played only 38 snaps this preseason, or 18 fewer than Chickillo played against Carolina. And in those 38 snaps, Harrison had two sacks, one of which resulted in two points and the other a fumble.

Those 38 snaps showed that James Harrison is still a one-man wreaking crew. He is in MUCH better shape than he was last year when the Steelers dragged him off the couch and out of retirement.

Harrison, in fact, looks like he can play another two or three years. And dominate.

This Steelers defense is young and leaky and needs a fearsome pass-rusher, a stout run-stuffer, a genuine leader and a true force of nature.

Harrison is all of that. But don't ask him about it, because he won't give you much of an answer.

One look, one mere acknowledgement, would tell us all we need to know, that this defense should not be dismissed, that this defense does have a chance.


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