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James Harrison is baaaaaaacckkk

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The Pittsburgh Steelers are hot right now. Their offense is on absolute fire but the oft-criticized defense has also come around in recent weeks. They’re not shutting people out like in days gone by although I’m not sure in today’s NFL such a thing is even possible. With all the current rules where basically scowling at a receiver results in a flag, I’m not sure it’s even possible to have a shut down unit anymore.

Good teams still play good D, it’s just a different kind of defense. They don’t give up the big plays, make the other guys work for the scores they do get, and above all generate splash plays by sacking the QB and forcing turnovers. Those are all areas the Steelers struggled mightily in for going on a two season now. They’re also areas the team has steadily improved in over the past few weeks. Perhaps not coincidentally, that improvement has coincided with the resurgence of one player in particular.

James Harrison.

Words really can’t express how amazing Harrison has been. The guy retired back in September because nobody wanted him. He was 36 years old and coming off a season where he was basically a glorified back-up for the Cincinnati Bengals. The Steelers had already cut ties with him the year before because he wouldn’t accept a pay cut and even drafted a linebacker in the first round to take his place.

I guess it’s true what they say about the best laid plans…

I’m by no means giving up on Jarvis Jones – or the equally ineffective Ryan Shazier, for that matter. It seems like nobody plays well in Dick LeBeau‘s defense until being around 3-4 years. We thought Cam Heyward was a bust until he suddenly turned it on and now he’s easily our best defensive lineman. Lawrence Timmons could barely get on the field his first couple years and he’s blossomed into a tackling machine who’s the rock of the entire defense. So while Jones has shown absolutely nothing as a pass rusher thus far, his time may yet come.

But that time is not now.

For now, having Harrison back has been nothing short of a miracle. He’s not quite prime era Defensive Player of the Year James Harrison but he’s certainly not very far off it. This past Sunday against Baltimore he was a human wrecking ball, flying in on Joe Flacco on nearly every play. He had two sacks and pretty much single-handedly forced an interception that was the turning point of the game. Beyond that, the constant pressure to force bad throws which helps our secondary not to mention drawing attention which allows others to step up and make plays are contributions that don’t show up on a stat sheet.

Harrison has made his presence felt and not just in terms of his on-field actions. I’m not in the Steeler locker room but I get the feeling he was sorely missed last year. I’ve sort of scoffed at the “leadership void” people worried about as the Steelers have purged their roster of their veterans but in this case, I think it was a very real problem. Ryan Clark was a loudmouth idiot while Troy Polamalu is a great player who doesn’t really seem comfortable with a leadership type role. Without a strong voice in the locker room, the defense was one thing I never thought would be said about a Steeler D: soft.

Nobody will ever question Deebo’s heart or desire. He was an undrafted free agent who was cut three times before finally latching on. He’s the kind of guy who not only busts his ass to be the best, he gets pissed if others aren’t busting their asses too. That’s the kind of thing some coaches can instill in players but is a billion times more effective when it’s coming from a teammate. As anybody who ever lived through unfortunate wardrobe choices and/or drinking binges in high school can attest, peer pressure is the strongest pressure of all.

The Steelers have had a pretty good history of cutting ties with their aging linebackers before their tank hits empty. They cut Greg Lloyd and he had a couple okay years in Carolina before fading out completely. Same with Jason Gildon,Kendrell Bell, and even Joey Porter, who played well for the Fins but was never really the same Peezy after we let him go. Even LaMarr Woodley, out for the season after yet another buffet-related injury, was let go right in time, albeit after signing an onerous contract extension. So in that sense, it’s hard to fault the Steelers for moving on from Deebo when they did.

What is apparent, though, is that Harrison isn’t quite ready to call it a career just yet. I love Troy but he’s not the Troy of old. Brett Keisel has – thus far – maintained a decent level of play but he was never the superstar Harrison or Troy were. Aging defensive warriors aren’t totally unusual in the modern NFL although they’re almost always defensive backs/safeties. For Harrison to be playing at the level he’s playing at the age – he along with CB Charlies Woodson are the league’s oldest active defensive players – is nothing short of remarkable. For him to not only play well but raise everybody else’s level of play at the same time is an out and out miracle.

I don’t know what the final chapter will be in James Harrison’s career. But what I do know is he’s writing one helluva story.