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Steelers LB James Harrison 'fine' with backup role

Chris Adamski
| Wednesday, Aug. 16, 2017, 12:39 p.m.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison has played only four defensive snaps in two regular-season games. He didn't play Sunday in the win over Minnesota.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker James Harrison has played only four defensive snaps in two regular-season games. He didn't play Sunday in the win over Minnesota.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison works out during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Steelers linebacker James Harrison works out during practice Sunday, Aug. 6, 2017, at Heinz Field.

Two days ago, Joey Porter publicly told Steelers fans James Harrison is no longer the starter at right outside linebacker.

Apparently, Porter never told the person who compiles the team's official depth chart.

Nor did he tell Harrison himself.

In speaking with the media for the first time since Porter, the Steelers outside linebackers coach, told Steelers Nation Radio that rookie T.J. Watt would play ahead of Harrison, Harrison responded with a figurative shrug.

“I just found this out when you all (in the media) told me,” Harrison said late Wednesday morning at St. Vincent. “That's fine. ... I'm not worried about that. Whatever (the coaches) want me to do. Thirty-nine years old, still playing football.”

The Steelers' career sacks leader, Harrison's name remains atop the official depth chart the NFL requires teams to release in advance of games. The Steelers play their second preseason game Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

But while Harrison might “officially” be ahead of Watt, the depth chart is nonbinding. And it's unlikely Harrison plays Sunday anyway because he has practiced just once during training camp.

Watt, meanwhile, has gotten extensive reps with the starters. The rookie first-round pick had two sacks in his NFL debut, a preseason win Friday at the New York Giants.

Watt and coach Mike Tomlin largely sidestepped giving direct answers when asked about Porter's declaration Monday.

Harrison entered as backup the past three seasons, but he became the No. 1 option at his position each time. In 2014, he was in retirement until signing before Week 4. In 2015 and '16, he ended up leading the team in snaps played among outside linebackers.

“That's what (coaches) felt at the time,” Harrison said of his status in previous years, “so that's what it was going to be. Turned out not to be that.

“Things changed.”

Last season, although he spent the first 10 games in a rotation with Jarvis Jones, Harrison played virtually every snap down the stretch and in the playoffs. He had 7½ sacks in his final 11 games, counting the postseason.

Did the coaches' early-season preservation tactics allow Harrison to be at his best come the end of the season?

“I don't know if that correlates,” he said. “I mean, the more I'm in there, the more productive I can be. So I don't know.

“Maybe, maybe not. Who knows?”

Harrison said he feels “fine” in regards to what shape he's in, and he “hopes” to practice again soon. However, Tomlin believes the 15-year veteran doesn't need unnecessary reps.

“Whatever they want me doing, I'm good,” Harrison said. “I'm not gonna argue about not practicing in training camp.”

Harrison said he has not decided whether this will be his final season. Pressed, he smiled and quipped: “I am thinking of going to 40 (years old) if I can go to Vegas for the last year at 40. The Las Vegas team, the (recently announced) Las Vegas Raiders team.”

The Oakland Raiders in the spring announced their intention to move to Las Vegas as soon as the new stadium is completed by 2020.

Undrafted and not an NFL regular until his third season — or a full-time starter until his sixth season — Harrison has competed for playing time early and late in his career.

“I mean, it is what it is,” he said. “It's not like I can play this game forever.

“You know, you go in there and you battle. If it comes out in your favor, it does. If it doesn't … ”

Staff writer Kevin Gorman contributed. Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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