James Harrison is a New England Patriot.
Unbelievable. Read that sentence again if it hasn’t hit you yet. I’ll wait…
All set? Good. Yes, the Patriots have signed former Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison after his former team cut him earlier this week. Harrison isn’t just any Steeler either. He played 14 seasons in black and yellow, winning two Super Bowls, making 5 Pro Bowls, and setting the franchise record in sacks. However, his Steelers teams recorded a record of just 3-10 against the Patriots, including going 0-2 in the playoffs. Harrison has been vocally anti-Patriots in the past, including a string of tweets taunting the Patriots about air-pressure during the DeflateGate saga. All things considered, it shouldn’t be any surprise that even at 39 years old, this signing has sent shockwaves across the NFL. What does this move, coming with just one week left in the regular season, mean for everyone involved? Lets take a look.
New England Patriots
On the surface, this move gives the Patriots depth on the edge, where they have had a revolving door all season. Dont’a Hightower, Harvey Langi, Shea McClellin, and Derek Rivers were all expected to contribute back in July, but find themselves on IR. Kyle Van Noy has played well while on the field, but has been nagged by a leg injury for the latter half of the season. Trying to fill in those roles, New England has gotten mostly disappointing performances from the likes of Cassius Marsh and Eric Lee. The Patriots need a pass rusher they can rely on for third downs, which seems like it would be Harrison’s role, for 15-20 snaps a game. Whether or not he can still play at a high level, despite only playing 5 games for Pittsburgh this year, remains to be seen, but his on the field performance is not the only reason to get excited about his arrival in Foxboro.
Thanks to injuries, plus the natural rhythm of the Patriots building their roster, they are very young and inexperienced up front. This isn’t to say there is no talent in their front 7, there is, but there are times it is obvious guys like Trey Flowers and Deatrich Wise are still learning the game. Getting a chance to work with a former Defensive Player of the Year will be an invaluable learning experience, and quick results could have their defense back to looking like it did mid-season, when they held opponents to under 20 points for 8 straight weeks.
On the field, this will have virtually no effect on how the Steelers operate, as Harrison had played less than 100 snaps this season in just 5 games. However, you can’t help but wonder how the often-fragile Steelers locker room will react to losing a long-time vocal leader. We saw last season during the playoffs, and at times this year as well, that this boisterous Pittsburgh team will let their emotions, good or bad, take control at inopportune times. The other thing the Steelers and their fans should be worried about is what Harrison is taking with him to New England if the teams meet again in the playoffs. How much of the Steelers game plan and playbook will Harrison inform Bill Belichick about? Will he be able to help Brady adjust to reads in game? If they think the Patriots will have their playbook, do they have enough time to make changes and install new schemes? Mike Tomin and the Steelers brass need to hope Harrison signed with New England as a business move, and only shares minimal information, as is usually the case in the NFL. But this is hardly a usual case, and if Harrison signed as a grudge move against a Steelers team that dropped him out of the blue mid-season, there is no reason to think he won’t be an open book for Belichick and his staff to use as a resource.
This is a storyline I’m surprised hasn’t been talked about much today. Baltimore (who oddly enough had Harrison on their practice squad for a brief period back in 2003) currently holds the top wild card spot in the AFC, and a win over a shaky Bengals team on Sunday would set up a first round matchup with an up-and-down Kansas City team. There is a very clear path to a Ravens-Patriots matchup in the AFC divisional round. Harrison has played 27 games against Baltimore in his career, more than any other team, and recorded 16 sacks and an interception in those games. He’s already been through game planning for the Ravens twice this year with Pittsburgh (although he was inactive for one of those games) and will be a valuable resource for the Patriots coaching staff if they meet in the playoffs.
Yesterday, James Harrison was a fan favorite in Pittsburgh, and considered one of the best players in the history of the storied franchise. A quick look on Twitter today confirms that this opinion has shifted, with one fan even going as far as to say the team didn’t need his help to win Super Bowl 43, a game in which he returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown before halftime, a play which completely swung the momentum of the game in the Steelers favor. (I would post a link to the Tweet, but is has since been deleted…presumably out embarrassment or recognition of sheer ignorance). If Harrison fails to show up in the playoffs, it’s possible that his reputation in the Steel City will heal in time. However, if he factors into another New England victory over the Steelers in the playoffs and/or a 6th Patriots Super Bowl ring, I can’t imagine he can show his face at Heinz Field again. That shouldn’t be something for him to lose sleep over though, because if he helps the Patriots to a championship…well you know how that old saying goes. Win a title in Boston, and they’ll love you forever. I never thought that would apply to James Harrison, but here we are, potentially four games away from ‘James Harrison, New England Patriots legend’.
And I want Steelers fans to read that last sentence again. Just to make sure it sinks in.
Written By: Alex Barth (@RealAlexBarth)