Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee Wednesday morning, which will put him out for a few weeks. While the team doesn't expect the five-time Pro Bowler to be out long, its options behind him at outside linebacker aren't encouraging.
Second-year pro Chris Carter and third-year pro Jason Worilds will likely fill in on the outside with Harrison out, but if the 34-year-old takes more than a few weeks to heal, the Steelers could have a problem.
Right now, head coach Mike Tomlin is optimistic Harrison will be back by Week 1, but the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year hasn't actually practiced since early spring.
Harrison is a key part of Pittsburgh's defense and plays a valuable role as an outside linebacker in the team's 3-4 defense. While Carter and Worilds could certainly fill in during the preseason, if Harrison is out any longer, the team may have to move inside linebacker Lawrence Timmons outside. That would leave Larry Foote and rookie Sean Spence to man the middle.
When Harrison plays, he's certainly an impact defender. Since 2007, he has racked up 437 tackles and 54 sacks, while forcing 27 fumbles and recovering six. He only played in 11 games in 2012, and it was obvious that no one on the roster could step in and replace his presence.
While Harrison's knee injury doesn't seem to be serious, he's 34, and you never know how guys are going to bounce back from injuries at that age. So the Steelers have to find someone to fill his spot, just in case he's gone for a while or can't play full games when he does return.
Worilds is likely the team's first option. He has played in 26 games over his first two years in the league and has five sacks in limited action.
But without Harrison, the team will lose a huge chunk of its pass-rushing prowess.
LaMarr Woodley will continue to pressure from his outside linebacking spot, but part of what has made him so effective over the past four seasons (44 sacks in that time) is the fact that Harrison has been lining up across from him.
Now, the Steelers will lean heavily on Woodley to get to the quarterback and keep the defense afloat while Harrison recovers.