Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison came out of retirement last year and played surprisingly well, and this year, he’ll be part of a young linebacker corps eager to prove itself.
At 37, he isn’t getting younger, so the Steelers are planning to keep him limited to 15-20 plays per game. But don’t expect Harrison to ease into retirement. While he will step into a reduced role, Harrison’s still believes he can make an impact.
“I feel good, and I’m in a far better position than I was last year,” Harrison said last week during organized team activities. “I’m certainly in better shape. I can hit the ground running.
“My mindset is a little different (than last year) because I’m actually into football. Last year, it was just about working out. It’s about football conditioning now.”
The Steelers are looking for their past three first-round picks – linebackers Jarvis Jones, Ryan Shazier and Bud Dupree – to step up and lead the linebacker corps this season.
Still, Harrison foresees himself playing more significant role. He’s expected to head to training camp next month not only to fight for playing time, but a starting job.
“Nobody wants to be in a backup role,” Harrison said. “If that’s your mentality, then you’re not in the right sport.
“Everybody wants to start, but we all have roles to play. I think I can play more than 25 snaps a game when I’m 50.”
Harrison has stepped into the role of mentor. But he isn’t interested in holding the hands of the Steelers’ young linebackers. Instead, he’s hoping to lead by example.
“It’s a role that’s easy to embrace,” he said. “I show what I do by actually doing it. I don’t talk to them about it. If you follow my lead, it shouldn’t be that hard to do the things that are necessary.
“They ask questions about what I’m doing and how I do it. They ask questions about the defense to get a grip on things. It’s what we expect.”
Linebacker Arthur Moats says the amount of snap counts Harrison will get isn’t as relevant as the leadership he provides.
“In the process of negotiating my contract, James’ snap count was one of the things they talked with me about,” Moats said. “So it wasn’t a surprise for us. The philosophy is we’ll be a more effective defense if we play less snaps.
“(Harrison) brings a mentality of toughness no matter how much he plays. Anyone in the outside linebacker room knows, if you put anything soft on film, he’ll tell you about yourself. Everyone respects his opinion.”
Harrison is motivated by an insatiable desire to prove his talents aren’t harnessed by age.
“My motivation is what people tell me I can’t do,” he said. “I’ll do whatever it takes to prove you wrong.”
Harrison is expected to help strengthen a pass rush that netted only 33 sacks last season. But he could play a key role in helping the defense improve against the run.
“You still fear James Harrison. Quarterbacks are still scared of him,” cornerback William Gay said. “Left tackles don’t want to see him. He’s still the same to me. He’s getting older but stronger.”