What James Harrison Adds to Cincinnati Bengals Defense

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJuly 25, 2013

May 29, 2013; Cincinnati, OH, USA; Cincinnati Bengals linebacker James Harrison walks off the field after organized team activities at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

The Cincinnati Bengals sent shock waves throughout the AFC North and NFL in general this offseason by bringing on former Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison

You know, Harrison of Super Bowl XLIII infamy for his interception and 100-yard return for a touchdown

Of course, we've come a long way since then, as has Harrison. Now at the crisp age of 35, many Bengals fans were left scratching their heads in an attempt to figure out why Harrison, who couldn't even stick with his old team, was suddenly taking his talents to the Queen City.  

At this point in his career, what could Harrison possibly have to offer the Bengals? Rey Maualuga is the middle linebacker and makes for one heck of a player on the strong side should the Bengals move him. 

Vontaze Burfict played well enough on the weak side in his rookie season and looks to be the heir apparent in the middle. The strong side itself has been a bit of a revolving door with Manny Lawson recently occupying the position. 

So where does Harrison, in a 4-3 scheme he is unfamiliar with after years in a 3-4, fit in with Mike Zimmer's defense? What does he bring to the table? 

Read on for the answer. 


The Numbers 

Let's get statistics out of the way first. Harrison has been eerily consistent over the past five or six years, with only injuries truly hampering his production. 

As you can see, Harrison makes a difference each year. He's blasted through the dreaded number of 30 when it comes to age, and at this point, the production is going to be there as long as he is on the field. 

For a guy who spends $600,000 on his body each year, we have a feeling his body will hold up well for a few more years during his time in Cincinnati. 


Against the Run

In Cincinnati, Harrison projects as a starter on the strong side barring a position change for Maualuga. This means he'll primarily be tasked with stopping the run—something he is still very effective at doing, sometimes creating a big play along the way. 

The following play is one such example. Against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 15 of last year, Harrison lined up outside of the tackles in Pittsburgh's base 3-4 and took a simple enough route to the quarterback. 

Harrison blows by the tackle, which is fine from the lineman's standpoint given the nature of the play. Except Harrison doesn't fall for the play fake and instead keeps his eyes on the ball-carrier the entire way. 

The ball-carrier gets stuck and attempts to break the run to the outside. Harrison is now disengaged entirely from his assigned blocker and is free to come up unexpected from behind. 

Harrison closes the gap immediately and violently punches the ball out of the ball-carrier's hand. Pittsburgh recovers and gives up no points in the red zone as a result. 

Now, this is the type of play Harrison could see a lot in Cincinnati. The Bengals use four down linemen, and the interior pressure generated by tackle Geno Atkins in both passing and running situations could frequently flush the ball in Harrison's direction. 


Against the Pass

Let's get to the meat and potatoes of what Harrison is known for—rushing the passer. After signing with the Bengals this offseason, Harrison has lined up at the outside and middle linebacker spots and blitzed.

Presumably the team will use Harrison as a pass-rusher from multiple positions next season.

Here's an example of how Harrison can impact the passing game from Week 16 of 2012 against the Bengals. 

He lines up over tight end Jermaine Gresham from his typical outside spot. 

Gresham immediately releases to go out and run a route, so Harrison focuses his attention on left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who is already in a perfect position to block Harrison. 

Keep in mind Whitworth was ranked the No. 9 overall tackle in the NFL last season, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). In 2011, he held the same rank and 2010 saw him grade out as the best tackle in the NFL

What happens next is pretty straightforward. Harrison bullies Whitworth, eventually powering him back into his own quarterback.

Quarterback Andy Dalton is forced to run up the middle in an attempt to escape, but Harrison's collapsing of the pocket sweeps him into the arms of other defenders for the sack. 

Now step back for a moment and picture this in Cincinnati. Harrison rushes off the edge, ends Carlos Dunlap (seven sacks in 2012) and Michael Johnson (11.5 sacks in 2012) rush from the ends while Atkins (12.5 sacks in 2012) creates pressure in an unorthodox manner up the middle. 


Realistically, Harrison will have a chance to rush the passer in obvious aerial situations, but the bulk of his work should come against the run if Cincinnati primarily uses him on the strong side. 

Still, Harrison is an upgrade over the departed Lawson and brings a certain versatility and unpredictability to the linebacker corps. 

There's also the intimidation factor, something the Cincinnati defense has been missing for years. 

With defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer playing him to his strengths, Harrison should have a solid all-around season provided his body holds up. It's not the signing some are hyping it up to be, but bringing Harrison on board was a sound decision nonetheless. 


Follow me on Twitter for more NFL news and analysis @Chris_Roling.


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