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Rookie LB T.J. Watt to get starting nod over veteran James Harrison

Joe Rutter
| Monday, Aug. 14, 2017, 7:57 p.m.
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt goes through drills during practice Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 at St. Vincent College.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker T.J. Watt goes through drills during practice Monday, Aug. 14, 2017 at St. Vincent College.

James Harrison hasn't taken any snaps in team defensive drills during training camp, and it appears that lack of inactivity will carry over into the regular season.

Outside linebackers coach Joey Porter indicated Monday the Steelers will open the season with Bud Dupree and rookie first-round draft pick T.J. Watt as starters, with Harrison being saved as a fallback option.

Harrison, who turned 39 in May, signed a two-year contract in the offseason after leading the Steelers with five sacks in 2016. The Steelers drafted Watt to be Harrison's eventual replacement, and that time apparently has come sooner than later.

Watt has worked extensively with the first-team defense since organized team activities in May, a pattern that has continued at training camp. He started at right outside linebacker in the preseason opener against the New York Giants and had two sacks in the first quarter.

“We have a plan set up. If something happens, the plan can always change,” Porter told Steelers Nation Radio on Monday morning. “Right now, the plan is to get the young guys going because they are our future with Bud and T.J. … Other guys are going to play, but at the same time, if they are not playing to the standard, we can bring in the righty, we can bring in the old man.”

The Steelers used a rotation system for the first half of last season while Dupree was on injured reserve following groin surgery. Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo were used on the left side, with Harrison and Jarvis Jones on the right.

When Dupree returned, the outside linebacker rotation ended. He and Harrison played almost every snap down the stretch and in the playoffs.

According to Porter, Dupree and Watt will get the playing time to start the season, with Harrison waiting in the wings in case of injury or lack of productivity.

“If we have to pull him off (the bench) to close out a game, we will, but going in that is not the intention,” Porter said. “That's why he hasn't taken any reps. The intention is to let the young guys eat up the reps. We've seen (Harrison) in 15 training camps, so we know what he can do. But at the same time, if the young guys can't run him off, that's what happens.”

Coach Mike Tomlin wouldn't specify Monday how many snaps or series Harrison would get this season.

“As many as he can handle,” Tomlin said. “As many as I'll prescribe, and I'm on the fence about what that number is.”

Two years ago, Tomlin had to face questions about snap counts when Porter said he would like to limit Harrison to 25 per game. It became a running joke between Tomlin and the media, so he brushed aside Porter's comments Monday.

“I'll let him address all those bold statements regarding rotations,” Tomlin said. “You guys aren't sucking me into those waters.”

Watt said he hasn't heard anything from the coaching staff about being named a starter.

“To be honest with you, I'm coming out here trying to do everything I can each and every single day to show what I can do,” he said. “All that stuff is above my pay grade. It's not my responsibility to put the lineup out there. I'm just out here trying to show I'm as consistent as possible, that I can make plays and be trusted.”

Harrison has gotten on the field for just one practice during camp — the Sunday night session at Heinz Field when he was limited to individual drills. He typically spends practice jogging on a side field, but he was not present Monday, and he wasn't spotted on the sideline Friday during the preseason game against the Giants.

“I need to see him around to make sure he's soaking up what we are talking about,” Porter said. “I like to see him around the guys. Do we need to see him work? No, we know what he can do. But at the same time, you want to see a little bit to make sure he's still got it. Everybody has to be tested to make sure they've still got it.”

Tomlin said Harrison's absence Monday was because he was doing an “alternate workout program for those guys in the late 30s.”

Joe Rutter is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jrutter@tribweb.com or via Twitter @tribjoerutter.

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