If you are familiar with the Pittsburgh Steelers' defense--and as Bengals fans you probably are--you know that they throw their base defense at opposing offenses more than most teams. To give you an idea of how striking this is, they had four linebackers on the field on defense about 99 percent of the time, on average. When James Harrison was healthy last year, according to Pro Football Focus he missed all of two of 839 defensive snaps. That's about 99.8 percent of the time.
When the Bengals signed James Harrison, I thought they signed a player who was too one-dimensional. Coming off of his knee injury last year, Harrison graded positively in only run defense by PFF's system. Thirty-seven percent of his snaps, Harrison rushed the passer. On 40 percent he defended the run. On the remaining 23 percent, he dropped into coverage. While spotty in coverage and as a pass rusher in 2012, he graded positively in all three phases of the defense in 2011 and 2010. There is room for cautious optimism that he can return to form in 2013.
In 2012, he still flashed as a pass rusher in some games, finishing 14th in the league in PFF's Pass Rusher Productivity among qualified 3-4 linebackers. Most of his pass rushes came from the right edge, but in his first game back against the Eagles in week five last year, he beat Evan Mathis on the interior in the third quarter. Much was made of Harrison's lost "bend" (the ability to turn the corner quickly when past the offensive tackle, described well by former Stanford OT Ben Muth here) on edge rushes last year. While I believe he has a chance to regain some of that ability, he showed savvy to succeed on interior rushes as well.
Pre-snap, the Steelers showed just one down lineman with 6 players, including one defensive back, lined up on the line of scrimmage. Translating this to a 4-3, Harrison is lined up roughly where SAM backers line up in a "4-3 over" look, over the tight end. In a 4-3, the SAM would be outside of the right defensive end, but Harrison and the Steelers never lined up in a traditional 4-3 last year.
This formation is certainly designed to create some confusion along the offensive line, where assigning pass protection is a challenge when you do not know who will ultimately rush the passer. In this case, the Steelers rush four in a zone blitz, with Harrison finding himself matched up with one of the best offensive guards in the league, Evan Mathis.
As Vick nears the end of his drop, Harrison has already put an "ole" move on Mathis, who loses his balance and lets the pass rusher slip by in the A gap, right in the middle of the pocket where Geno Atkins notoriously wreaked havoc last year. He's eying a free shot on Vick, who needs to get rid of the football while his receivers have just gotten off of the line of scrimmage.
Vick gets rid of the ball in time, but does not get out of the way of Harrison's punishing blow just after he fires an incomplete pass as Mathis can only watch. Vick would take a few extra moments to recover from this hit, one of three that Harrison delivered on the day.
We have yet to see how Harrison will be deployed in Mike Zimmer's 4-3 defense this year. A good hypothesis is that he will continue to line up at SAM in the base 4-3, though speculation is that he will work his way into Nickel packages when he is more comfortable with the base defense. He could rush the passer from either formation. Last year he seemed to suffer from reduced flexibility on edge rushes, so it will be interesting to see how low he can get on the edge in pre-season to gauge how his outside rushing skills will look this year.
Long a specialty, Bengals fans are expecting James Harrison to be a dominant force in run defense this year. Harrison has been widely regarded as one of the best run defending linebackers in the league for the last several years, and last year he maintained this excellence despite any lingering injury issues. He posted the third best PFF stop percentage among 3-4 outside backers in run defense at 9.1 percent, meaning that on 28 of his 307 run defense snaps, his tackle constituted a loss for the offense.
Harrison impacts the running game by shooting gaps and hitting ball carriers in the backfield, pushing tight ends and tackles into running lanes, chasing runners down on the sideline, and by stringing out edge blockers and forcing runs to the dreaded corner store, into the arms of other defenders. On the plays I watched, he did a phenomenal job of sticking to his assignment and relying on his teammates to do the same, which was a perceived problem at times last year for Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga.
On this first quarter play, Harrison found himself aligned across from tight end Brent Celek. The Steelers have 5 on the line of scrimmage, not unlike the "4-3 Over" look (picture) we talked about earlier. The Eagles have two tight ends on the field and the Steelers have eight in the box, though five of the defenders are over or left of the center, which the Eagles run away from.
Harrison meets his blocker, Celek, about a half yard from the line of scrimmage but immediately gains leverage. Harrison gets lower than Celek and gets his hands to the blocker's chest, starting to drive his legs to push the running play to the corner and out of bounds or into another linebacker's waiting tackle.
He succeeds with the task, and LeSean McCoy can only run for the corner with the hopes of gaining a few yards or getting back to the line of scrimmage. Behind Harrison, Lawrence Timmons is running free. The play was certainly designed to go outside to the right side of the defense, but as designed, McCoy would not be running parallel to the line of scrimmage at this point.
Timmons catches up to McCoy, thanks in no small part to Harrison beating Celek at the point of attack. If it wasn't Timmons, Harrison is the next closest defender on the sideline and looks to be in good position to stop McCoy before he picks up the first down.
This play is not terribly unlike what you might expect Harrison's responsibility to be on a similar play in the Bengals' 4-3 defense. With the run behind 3 men on the right side of the defense, Harrison would be expected to force the play to the sideline or stop it before it gets going. Celek is not the best run blocking tight end in the NFL, but he did rank better than any AFC North tight end in run blocking last year, by PFF's grades.
If you are at all like me, pass coverage is the least known of Harrison's skills. He's been described to me by Steelers fans as anything from a liability to a league average coverage linebacker. As a 3-4 outside linebacker, he received a fraction of the snaps in coverage that a 4-3 linebacker faces every year, but by most measures, fared well. He gave up just .61 yards per snap when he dropped into coverage, and only one reception per 16.7 snaps in coverage according to PFF, good for third and second respectively amongst 3-4 OLBs with at least 50 percent of their team's OLB coverage snaps.
By comparison, Vontaze Burfict gave up a catch every eight snaps he took in coverage for an average of 1.13 yards per snap. However, he took nearly 4 times as many snaps in coverage as Harrison. I think the Bengals coaching staff will avoid putting Harrison in coverage situations as much as possible, though he may not be quite as bad at is as we thought.
In this example, Harrison finds himself covering Clay Harbor, who is split out in the left slot. The Steelers are running what seems to be a hybrid zone blitz with man coverage to the outside. Harbor motioned to his slot position and the defense adjusted, with Harrison running out from the middle of the field.
The Steelers' play is designed to get quick pressure on Vick, as they did for the entire afternoon, so Harrison jams Harbor. As it turns out, Vick appears to have been looking his way for a quick dump off pass as the blitz crashes down. However, while he's looking that way, Harbor is dealing with Harrison and Jeremy Maclin has just gotten off of the line.
Harbor actually wins this matchup momentarily after contact, but Harrison's bump disrupted the play long enough that Vick had to move off of his first read. When he turns, he finds an unblocked Lawrence Timmons bearing down and will not have time to find Harbor, now open for a 3 yard gain.
Vick being the elite athlete he is, avoids the big loss on the play and scrambles back to the line of scrimmage as Harbor continues his crossing route along the 40. Harrison, at this point, has caught up and is in position to limit a potential reception to about a 3 yard gain.
But Vick never gets rid of the football, and it ends up irrelevant. Ultimately, he executed his bump well enough to move Vick off of his initial read and allow the blitz time to get to Vick and force a negative play for the offense.
We ultimately need to re-visit James Harrison when we have preseason tape to work with. Until then, we can speculate about how he will be used, look at where he lines up in minicamp and training camp, and hope to steal glimpses of him in action on Bengals.com camp highlights. Until then, I'm holding out hope that he regains some of his 2011 athleticism and flexibility to become a reliable player in all phases of the game, at least in the base defense.
It is probably more reasonable to expect Harrison to reprise his role as a run stopping force, with the occasional pass rushing threat. I think the Bengals will minimize his exposure to coverage, though it will certainly be necessary in the base defense at some point. From what I watched, he understands his role on every play, be it to jam a receiver, maintain an edge, drop into zone, or rush the passer. And really, that is all he needs to do if Zimmer deploys him properly.
Once the preseason gets underway, we will hopefully know a bit more about the mystery, the man, James Harrison.