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The NFL is a better place with James Harrison

The veteran outside linebacker came out of retirement to toughen up the Steelers defense. And it's working.

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Not often, but every once in awhile, a standout defensive player's NFL career ends the way it's supposed to end. Unfortunately, that usually isn't the case. I know as a lifelong Cowboys fan I am supposed to hate the Steelers with the fire of a thousand suns, but I have been a fan of linebacker James Harrison pretty much since he earned a starting position with the team. The dude was, and is, an animal on the field. It seemed like his only mission in life was to seek and destroy pieces of the offense on every play. It didn't seem to matter to him which piece it was either. Offensive tackle? Tight end? Wide receiver?

I imagine Harrison figured they all taste like chicken.

Oh, he did seem to delight quite a bit in knocking quarterbacks' asses into next week whenever he got the chance, but no one quarterback's pain appeared to give him any more satisfaction than the rest. The only thing all the hits on quarterbacks had in common was that none of them were of the soft variety. You gotta have at least one go-hard, blue collar guy like Harrison on your team who is juuuuust a tad bit crazy. You know, the guy who makes everyone a little nervous when he comes around even if he has never really given them a reason to be. Yeah, him. That's Harrison all day, son!

Seeing the Steelers essentially wish Harrison happy trails last season after he had given so much of himself on the field to them week after week, year after year, just didn't sit right with me. Seeing Harrison line up at middle linebacker in a 4-3 for the Bengals last season about made me want to puke. One of the best 3-4 outside pass rushers of our time reduced to being a boring backup middle linebacker for a hated division rival, yuck!

I can't even imagine the kinds of mixed feelings Steelers fans had cheering against him twice last year. For a guy who had been such a great story of perseverance, working his way up from having been cut three times by the Steelers and playing in the World League early on in his career, all the way to being named Defensive Player of the Year after the 2008 season, Harrison's journey was not supposed to end anywhere but in Pittsburgh in a Steelers uniform.

However, one thing most of us former NFL players can attest to is that in the real world there are rarely storybook endings to careers. And so it appeared that after Harrison announced his retirement this past offseason that our final images of him would be in orange and black, rather than yellow and black, something I considered a travesty. But then fate intervened to make sure those were not the last images we saw of Harrison playing in an NFL game.

The Steelers had a bunch of injuries at outside linebacker early in the season, and were also in dire need of some leadership on that side of the ball. Finally, somebody with a little power in Pittsburgh decided to stop cutting off their nose to spite their face and gave Harrison a call, offering him the opportunity to come back into the fold and help his old team out in their time of need.

Here's the thing, it's a great story if it ends right there, right? Harrison gets one more shot to go out on his own terms wearing a Steelers uniform and he runs out of the tunnel, the crowd roars and he just keeps running off into the sunset as the credits start to come up.

That would be a pretty dope ending to the "James Harrison Movie," wouldn't it?

You gotta have at least one go-hard, blue collar guy like Harrison on your team who is juuuuust a tad bit crazy.

In actuality things were really just getting poppin' once Harrison walked back through those doors. As I've said for a few years now, there are some guys who were just made to be pass rushers. Some of it is physical ability and a lot of it is also technique, but these dudes could roll out of bed and win you a one-on-one any random day of the week. That's why I felt the Steelers should have called him up sooner than they did, because at that point they didn't have much pass rush. I strongly felt that Harrison could still get the job done. It turns out I might have actually been underselling the guy.

In 10 games and two starts, Harrison -- who literally came right off his couch to play a ton of reps that first week back against the Buccaneers -- has already collected 41 tackles and 5.5 sacks including the 1.5 sacks he notched last Sunday in the a win over the Chiefs. As much as anything else, Harrison has been a consistent pass rush presence, something the Steelers lacked even when they were fully healthy.

With Harrison beating offensive tackles off the left edge, offenses can no longer focus on just trying to block Jason Worilds, the linebacker opposite Harrison and the Steelers' best pass rusher until Harrison came back. Not content to be just a nickel pass rusher, which was supposedly the original plan, Harrison has instead been a catalyst of sorts, transforming that Steelers defense from pretty much a joke early on this season to one that has again started to inspire just a liiiittle bit of fear in their opponents. Now that Harrison is back to help set the standard for that defense up front, you see a lot more guys selling out on every play and a lot fewer guys turning down big collisions.

Oh, and the Steelers are now playing the Bengals for the division crown on Sunday, their last game of the season.

I still don't think it should've taken all that for the Steelers to reach out to Harrison in the first place and bring him back to play outside linebacker for them this offseason. I don't think anybody thought he was really done as a player, and he has a lot he could teach young outside linebacker Jarvis Jones about how to turn that corner and also what it means to be a starting outside linebacker for the Steelers.

No matter how it got done, I for one am glad it did, and I can't wait to see how the extended version of James Harrison's movie ends in the postseason.


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