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Starkey: James Harrison, come on down!

| Saturday, March 22, 2014, 11:36 p.m.

Are the Steelers really desperate enough to bring James Harrison back?

We both know the answer to that question.

If this team had any semblance of depth at outside linebacker — that is, an oxygen-exchanging humanoid other than Chris Carter — I'd say it was a bad idea.

If their depth chart didn't have more holes than Augusta National, I'd laugh at the notion.

If their defense wasn't coming off something other than a hugely embarrassing season in which it surrendered 55 points and 610 yards in a single game, I'd say forget about it.

But they are riddled with holes. They have no depth. And their defense stunk. So how could it hurt to sign Harrison to a veteran-minimum deal? The man did some decent work in Cincinnati even though he played only 35 percent of the snaps and fit into the Bengals' 4-3 scheme about as well as Casey Hampton would fit in a tutu.

Harrison, you might have heard, expressed interest in returning to Pittsburgh during an NFL Network interview last week. The Steelers should take the cue. They could use a spare pass rusher. If Harrison shows up with nothing left, then by all means cut him (it wouldn't be the first time) at minimal cost. No harm, no foul.

Best case, Harrison becomes the defensive version of a late-stage Jerome Bettis, a Steelers legend willing to play a small but critical role in his final act. For Bettis, it was as a short-yardage and late-game battering ram. For Harrison, it could be as a situational (and late-game) pass rusher and maybe a short-yardage defender.

This is a low-risk proposition for a desperate team, one that is watching the New England Patriots and Denver Broncos lap the AFC in a barrage of offseason moves. Given their largely self-made cap issues, nobody thought the Steelers would do as much as they've done (retain Jason Worilds, sign a $25 million deal with Mike Mitchell, add Lance Moore). But it pales in comparison to what the AFC powers are doing.

Harrison turns 36 in May. He wouldn't be competing for a starting job, although it's worth noting that in about 250 fewer snaps, he had twice as many sacks (two) as Jarvis Jones. Some might worry that he can't play special teams anymore (he never could long-snap). They shouldn't worry so much. Lots of guys can play special teams.

Harrison's locker-room presence and workout habits wouldn't hurt on a defense that is getting younger, although the Steelers don't need a strength-and-conditioning coach. They need help tackling quarterbacks. Harrison showed in Cincinnati that he still can play. That is what people who covered the team tell me, and there is statistical evidence to back the assertion.

Take these numbers any way you like, but the people at ProFootballFocus.com rated Harrison as the Bengals' second-best linebacker last season with a grade of 8.4, behind only Vontaze Burfict. Bengals coaches had Harrison with eight quarterback pressures, and he tied for the team lead with four “stuffs” — a stat defined by sportingcharts.com as “the defense denying a running play at or before the line of scrimmage” usually in jumbo-package situations (to paraphrase Mike Tomlin, you people have way too much time on your hands). For comparison sake, Troy Polamalu led the Steelers with six stuffs.

None of which is to suggest Harrison was a high-impact player or would be here. But he wasn't the useless shell of a man some have portrayed him as, either.

At minuscule risk, the Steelers should kick the tires. If Harrison kicks back, you'll know it's the right move.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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