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Steelers linebacker Harrison leads by example despite reduced role

| Saturday, June 13, 2015, 10:30 p.m.
Steelers linebacker James Harrison works out during OTAs last month on the South Side.
Chaz Palla | Trib Total Media
Steelers linebacker James Harrison works out during OTAs last month on the South Side.
The Steelers re-signed James Harrison to a two-year, $2.75 million contract Sunday, March 22, 2015.
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The Steelers re-signed James Harrison to a two-year, $2.75 million contract Sunday, March 22, 2015.

A year ago, James Harrison awaited a phone call as his agent searched for the perfect match for his client's talents.

But the right deal still had not materialized months after the Cincinnati Bengals released Harrison. One of the NFL's most-feared linebackers reluctantly settled into retirement.

Harrison insisted he had something to contribute. His naysayers, though, figured it was the end for a player whose game usually was defined by a resistance to conform to rules changes that were intended to temper his aggressiveness. When it appeared Harrison had taken a curtain call, injuries to Steelers linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier convinced him to abandon retirement just three games into the 2014 season.

Harrison, who will begin his 13th season when the Steelers open the regular season Sept. 10 at New England, is feeling good about his role, even if it is a limited one.

“I feel good, and I'm in a far better position than I was last year,” Harrison said last week during organized team activities. “I'm certainly in better shape. I can hit the ground running.

“My mindset is a little different (than last year) because I'm actually into football. Last year, it was just about working out. It's about football conditioning now.”

At 37, the former NFL Defensive Player of the Year has been asked to scale back his workload. The Steelers seemingly are making an effort to incorporate into the staring lineup their past three No. 1 picks: Jones, Shazier and Bud Dupree, this year's first-round selection.

Still, Harrison envisions a more significant role. He'll head to training camp next month fighting not only for playing time but also a starting job.

“Nobody wants to be in a backup role,” said Harrison, who helped the Steelers win two Super Bowl titles. “If that's your mentality, then you're not in the right sport.

“Everybody wants to start, but we all have roles to play. I think I can play more than 25 snaps a game when I'm 50.”

For now, Harrison's role is that of mentor. But he isn't interested in holding the hands of the Steelers' young linebackers. Instead, he's hoping to lead by example.

“It's a role that's easy to embrace,” he said. “I show what I do by actually doing it. I don't talk to them about it. If you follow my lead, it shouldn't be that hard to do the things that are necessary.

“They ask questions about what I'm doing and how I do it. They ask questions about the defense to get a grip on things. It's what we expect.”

Linebackers coach Joey Porter defined Harrison's role during the NFL Draft. He said repeatedly that his former teammate probably would play behind Jones.

On Thursday, Porter didn't suggest anything has changed.

“He's a professional. He's been in this league a long time, and it is what it is,” Porter said. “No matter the situation, (Harrison) knows I have his best interest in mind, and I've said it before. He knows where we're at, and he's going to give me what I ask him to give me.”

Porter and defensive coordinator Keith Butler aren't asking much. They plan to use him about 15 to 25 snaps a game.

“Our job is to prepare like we're starting, and that's where James' mentality is,” cornerback William Gay said. “We don't know how to prepare for 20 or 30 snaps. The bottom line is to prepare for 70 snaps.

Linebacker Arthur Moats said Harrison's snap count isn't as relevant as the leadership he provides.

“In the process of negotiating my contract, James' snap count was one of the things they talked with me about,” said Moats, who has split time at left outside linebacker with Dupree during OTAs. “So it wasn't a surprise for us. (Porter's) philosophy is we'll be a more effective defense if we play less snaps.

“(Harrison) brings a mentality of toughness no matter how much he plays. Anyone in the outside linebacker room knows, if you put anything soft on film, he'll tell you about yourself. Everyone respects his opinion.”

Harrison is motivated by an insatiable desire to prove his talents aren't harnessed by age.

“My motivation is what people tell me I can't do,” he said. “I'll do whatever it takes to prove you wrong.”

Harrison is expected to help bolster a pass rush that netted only 33 sacks last season. But he could play a key role in helping the defense improve against the run.

“You still fear James Harrison. Quarterbacks are still scared of him,” Gay said. “Left tackles don't want to see him. He's still the same to me. He's getting older but stronger.”

Ralph N. Paulk is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rpaulk@tribweb.com or via Twitter @RalphPaulk_Trib.

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