Ex-Steeler Harrison aims to prove he can still make an impact

Ralph N. Paulk
| Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

CINCINNATI — James Harrison is seemingly grateful that the Cincinnati Bengals gladly embraced him shortly after the Steelers released him earlier this year following 10 mostly productive seasons.

“I'm just thrilled to be able to still play ball,” said Harrison, who signed a two-year contract with the Bengals worth $4.45 million. “It's what I love to do. I'm thankful I had a chance to keep playing.”

Harrison will face his former team for the first time on “Monday Night Football” in a pivotal early-season showdown between AFC North rivals who appear headed in opposite directions.

The Bengals, who were preseason picks to win the division, dropped their season opener at Chicago. But with Harrison, they have a two-time Super Bowl champion and five-time Pro Bowler who adds mental and physical toughness to a team that is 0-4 in the postseason since their last playoff victory in 1990.

“You turn on ESPN or any news station, and Harrison is knocking guys out,” Bengals cornerback Terence Newman said. “He's like a tank when he takes on linemen. He's making it easier for guys around him.

“He's part of our brotherhood now. If he played for the Ravens or the Browns, they would have embraced him, too.”

For Harrison, this is also game of redemption. He doesn't appear bitter that the Steelers severed ties with him, but he departed with an obvious chip on his shoulder.

At the end of last season, Harrison was confident he and the Steelers would reach a contract agreement. Instead, the Steelers allowed him to test free agency.

“It's not tough to leave when you have no other option,” Harrison said after the Bengals' practice Wednesday at Paul Brown Stadium. “They couldn't come to something I liked, and I couldn't come to something they liked.

“So, we are where we are. But I've moved on, and I'm looking forward to the game on Monday.”

So, too, is defensive end Brett Keisel, who manned the right side of the Steelers' defensive front alongside Harrison.

“James is different,” Keisel said. “But he's far enough gone that he's there, and we know he's going to be there. I think he's moved on just like we have.”

Admittedly, Harrison wasn't sure of his destiny as few teams bargained for a 35-year-old linebacker besieged by injuries and haunted by a reputation of skirting the NFL's more stringent rules on helmet-to-helmet contact. In 2010, he was fined an estimated $120,000 for illegal hits.

Also, there weren't any teams willing to meet his salary demands, in part, because of age and injuries that limited the former defensive player of the year to eight games the past two seasons.

However, Cincinnati nose tackle Geno Atkins and offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth aren't swayed by Harrison's past troubles or injuries. They are mostly impressed with how he's influenced the Bengals' locker room.

“He's brought his knowledge, fearlessness and toughness which are rubbing off on people,” Atkins said. “Everybody is getting after it.”

“The young guys see him working out on a daily basis and are following his lead,” Whitworth said. “They're saying, ‘If this old guy play this long and work this hard, why am I going home early?' He was blowing people up last week to make it easier for everyone else to do their job.

“He's the same guy I had to deal with when he played in Pittsburgh. He's still physical. He's still dedicated to being better.”

Harrison, who had one tackle against the Bears, sought the best fit for his talents when he reluctantly wandered into free agency. The Bengals' 4-3 base defense isn't the ideal fit, considering the Steelers' 3-4 perfectly suits an aggressive outside linebacker with pass-rushing skills.

“It's a little different scheme, and I'm still learning,” said Harrison, who had 16 of his 64 career sacks in leading the Steelers to their sixth Super Bowl title in 2008. “It's just a new position, so once I get a hang of it everything will fit.”

The Bengals scoured the free-agent market in pursuit of an experienced linebacker to lead a relatively young but ambitious defense. The Bengals flirted with courting Miami linebacker Dannell Ellerbe, but Harrison's realistic contract demands were more appealing.

Harrison considered AFC North rivals Baltimore and Cleveland, but both teams passed on signing him. Cincinnati offered him a shot at personal redemption — and an opportunity to prove to the Steelers that he's still worth the $52 million the Steelers offered in extending his contract in 2009.

“Right now, I'm starting to play a little faster and easier because I understand what I'm doing,” added Harrison, who rejected a significant pay cut from the Steelers. “I haven't had to make a lot of adjustments. I'm taking the same kind of drops and some of the play calls are the same, but they just mean something different.”

Steelers' safety Ryan Clark is hoping Harrison hasn't grasped the Bengals' playbook entirely. Like the Bengals, he knows how potentially disruptive his former teammate can be when he's healthy.

“I'm hoping that he has an awful game, and that he doesn't make any plays,” Clark said. “The other 14 weeks, he can play great.”

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