There was a lot of attention paid to Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning ahead of his divisional playoff matchup against the Steelers, and rightfully so. Manning, who has been one of the best ever, may well have been suiting up for a final time in an NFL uniform had he and his team lost on Sunday.
It only made sense, with that being a real possibility, that NFL media folk would explore that angle of the story leading up to the game. After all, it is almost understood as fact that this is at least Manning's last season in Denver, and if the Broncos won't have him at this stage of his career, who exactly would? Besides, a guy with Manning's accomplishments certainly deserved to have some nice things said about him before what might have been his last hurrah.
I got no problem with that at all.
What I will say, however, is that while the NFL media was honoring Manning and speculating about his future last week, there was another guy in the other locker room who probably deserved just as much attention and speculation about his future. Like Manning, he headed into that game with over a decade of experience and plenty of accolades over the years to boot. Like Manning, he was also an integral part of a Super Bowl-winning team. If you asked me who I thought was playing closer to their best out of the two, I damn sure wouldn't have picked Manning. And hell, if Sunday was indeed his last game as an NFL player this dude had about as productive a swan song as anyone could possibly hope for.
I am, of course, referring to longtime Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison.
It kinda feels weird not adding the word "starting" to that, considering all that Harrison has done for that franchise. But at this point in his career he is indeed a backup, technically speaking. Just a sign of the times I suppose, but I don't want to belabor the point because it's not like Harrison only gets a few reps here or there. He still rotates into games on a regular basis. When he is in there, he's almost invariably making something happen. As he gets in you see him make a big hit or turn the corner on an offensive tackle, and you almost forget that he didn't play every play by the time the game is over.
Even in his reduced role, Harrison still tends to find himself on the field late in games when the Steelers really need someone to step up and make a play. Sunday was no different. Harrison rotated in basically every other series in the first half. He was on the field damn near every play of the second half of that game. It's worth remembering that he and the Steelers were holding on desperately to a 16-12 lead all the way up until Manning and the Broncos scored a touchdown and a two-point conversion with a little over three minutes left in the game.
If you watched the game, you also know that once again Harrison managed to find a way to maximize his production even with the limited reps.
On the first drive he was in for, Harrison had two tackles, including one for no gain on third-and-2 to force a punt.
Next drive he was in, he had a tackle for a loss to help force the Broncos to punt to end that drive, too.
In the third quarter, on second-and-10, he looped inside on a Tex pass rush stunt and blasted Broncos running back Ronnie Hillman as he tried to check through the line. That play also helped to eventually force a Denver punt.
Not bad at all. Especially considering how, even on a low scoring day, Denver at least seemed to fare much better when he wasn't in there.
As I said before, this is when he was rotating in every other drive. In the second half, more playing time brought more productivity (which kinda begs the question of maybe they should've cut the rotating shit out in the first half, too, but I ain't one to gossip). With his team trying desperately to hold on to a one-point halftime lead, Harrison managed to notch two more tackles for a loss, a sack, three other tackles and a pressure in the final 30 minutes of play. Ultimately, it wasn't enough, but clearly Harrison laid it all on the line for his team on Sunday.
Anybody who has ever watched him play wouldn't have expected anything less.
It's kind of amazing when you reflect on the fact that Harrison was retired last season after a disappointing year in Cincinnati and only came back to play after the Steelers suffered a string of injuries that left them very thin at his position. They pretty much had no where else to turn. Not only did he finish the 2014 season strong with 5.5 sacks in 11 games, he came back this year at the ripe old age of 37, and all he does is lead all Steelers outside linebackers in sacks with five for the regular season. You almost get the feeling he could do this forever if they would let him.
The craziest thing for me about Harrison is that every time I look up his stats I'm reminded that his first year in the league, 2002, was my last. When I look back on my career that truly seems like a lifetime ago, so when I watch film of this dude still playing with the same fire, intensity and physicality that he has brought from day one it blows my damn mind every time.
I am not sure that James Harrison will ever make it into the Hall of Fame. Truth is his 76.5 career sacks aren't exactly super impressive, especially when compared to other guys at his position who still haven't made it, like Kevin Greene (seriously, why the fuck isn't Kevin Greene in the Hall already?! ONE HUNDRED AND SIXTY SACKS, BRO!!! Get it together guys). Harrison was only selected to five Pro Bowls and only named All Pro twice, which also seems to be a big part of the criteria these days. So yeah, he is probably going to be on the outside looking in when it is all said and done.
What I do know for sure though is that James Harrison has been one BAMF on the field for as long as I can remember watching him play. Watching this film from Sunday was just yet another reflection of that. The wildest part of all is that I still don't see anybody on that roster to replace him.
Ironically enough, it may well be that the Steelers bid farewell to Harrison precisely because they haven't really found his heir apparent yet. The more Harrison plays, the more plays their next potential All-Pro outside linebacker of the future is stuck on the sidelines watching.
Maybe it's the rookie Bud Dupree who started and made some plays, but still needs to work on his pass rush technique. Maybe its Jarvis Jones who had been a borderline bust up until this year and still may only be an average player at best. Hell, maybe its a player to be named later, but somebody needs to lead the pass rush for the next decade or so. No matter how well he's held up physically over the years, the Steelers likely know that can't happen with Harrison still on the roster.
Seeing how things went in Cincy, I can't see Deebo trying to continue on with anybody else this time around, unfortunately. That's why I'm pretty sure this is the last we have seen of the man on the field.
If that is true, we won't have to dust off film from games long past to remember his greatness. We only to look back at the game this past Sunday to see him flash that signature physicality as he Rock Bottomed poor Hillman in the third quarter on one of those tackles for a loss he racked up.
Or you could revel in that BLAAAMMMMM he handed out to the Broncos other running back, C.J. Anderson, as he ran over him to get what might be the last sack of his career on Manning.
Or maybe you could check out some of his pass rush moves like that signature dip and rip that was so hard for offensive tackles to block. Might've been a little slower, may not have been quite as agile, but that was all vintage James Harrison on Sunday, homie.
For his whole career Harrison was, as Marshawn Lynch famously said, just about that action boss. That's why I am honored to name him my Hoss Of The Week for potentially the last time ever after his standout performance in the divisional round of the playoffs.