No matter how inventive Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer might be, James Harrison's signing in Cincinnati (two years, $4.45 million) seems a bit peculiar. Consider what Zimmer did last season with strongside linebacker Manny Lawson, the man Harrison is replacing after Lawson signed a four-year, $12 million deal with the Bills.
Against the Dolphins in Week 5, Lawson played a season-high 46 snaps out of a possible 66. But wide receiver Brian Hartline and tailback Reggie Bush routinely abused Lawson from the slot. After the 17--13 loss Zimmer decided to rely on Cincinnati's base nickel defense, and it took Lawson three games to accumulate another 46 snaps.
What the Bengals needed to acquire was a quick linebacker who can patrol a hash mark in Zimmer's "man within a zone" coverage while remaining a constant threat to blitz. The 35-year-old Harrison, by all accounts a perfect fit in the locker room, is not the answer for Cincy on the field.
By my estimation he's a short-yardage run-stopper and a situational blitz specialist who will see slightly more snaps than Lawson did in 2012. This would mean a significant role change for Harrison, who played 837 out of 839 possible snaps in Pittsburgh last season after he returned from arthroscopic knee surgery. Lawson was on the field just 34.0% of the time (398 out of 1,170 snaps, according to Pro Football Focus).
Why the need for a rangy linebacker? Look no further than the Bengals' 19--13 wild-card loss to the Texans, which denied Cincinnati its first playoff victory since 1990. Houston used swift tight end Owen Daniels to stretch the defense and pave the way for running back Arian Foster. Slipping behind linebackers Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga, and beating undersized corners Leon Hall and Pacman Jones on sideline hitches and slants across the middle, Daniels caught nine balls for 91 yards. Foster rushed for 140 yards and a TD on 32 carries.
Despite the struggles of Burfict and Maualuga, Harrison still looks to be the odd man out on third-and-long; he hasn't had a positive PFF pass defense grade since the 2011 season opener.
Zimmer insists he will find the right way—or ways—to use Harrison, whom he calls "an upgrade" over Lawson. Harrison could, for example, be used as a defensive lineman in nickel situations. But that might create other problems. Who would get bumped from one of the AFC's best fronts? And would Harrison even be effective in the trenches? From 2007 through '10 he led the NFL with 25 forced fumbles and ranked fourth with 45 sacks. Over the past two seasons he's averaged just 2.0 forced fumbles and 7.5 sacks.
Simply put, he is no longer an every-down player.
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ROLE PLAYER Harrison was an every-down linebacker for the Steelers (top), but Cincy, which needs help in pass defense, is likely to use him as a situational sub.
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