Pittsburgh’s Goin’ to the Super Bowl: Go Play Outside

james-harrison-2012-32ada7165646004dIt’s time to tackle head-on the 275-pound elephant in the room—James Harrison. In other words, we’re going to have a look at the outside linebackers.

No one has more respect for what James Harrison has brought to the Steelers than I do. He’s had a full career of overcoming the odds, and he continues to do so. Last season he was, at age 38, the oldest non-kicker or quarterback still playing football. That’s amazing. And when you consider he did so at a high level for the past two seasons, and was the almost-every-down ROLB, after Joey Porter had solemnly assured everyone Harrison’s snap counts would be limited, is nothing short of remarkable.How well did he play last season? Time to turn to Pro Football Focus. For all its faults, Pro Football Focus is the only place I have been able to find rankings for every player in the league with any amount of on-field time. Here’s how Harrison was rated by them:

Among so-called edge defenders (PFF’s way of dealing with the varying sort of defensive players in 3-4 and 4-3 systems) Harrison was No. 11. The closest other Steeler was Bud Dupree, at No. 80. Here’s some of the guys Harrison beat out for that ranking:

  • Clay Matthews (No. 96)
  • Ezekiel Ansah (No. 51)
  • Terrell Suggs (No. 39)
  • Justin Houston (No. 34)
  • Tamba Hali (No. 21)
  • Carlos Dunlap (No. 15)
  • Jason Pierre-Paul (No. 13)

Who beat him out?** Khalil Mack, the No. 5 overall draft pick in 2014, was No. 1, with a rating of 93.9. Cameron Wake, who was No. 10, beat Harrison by 1/10th of a percent (86.8 vs. 86.7.) Von Miller, who is sort of NFL royalty, I suppose, was No. 4 with a grade of 91.1.

Miller was born March 26, 1989. Harrison was born May 4, 1978. It sort of takes your breath away.

It’s hard not to root for Harrison, at least if you’re a Steelers fan. Talk about an underdog. At the time I became a fan (2009) Harrison was just another name to me, but as I began to find out just what he had overcome to get where he was I was seriously impressed. Multiply that by quite a bit at this stage.

I recently listened to the talk Mike Tomlin gave at his 2012 induction into the William and Mary Hall of Fame. It’s very funny, even more than I would have anticipated, but this in particular had me ROFL, as the kids would say:

That’s one of the reasons I work in the NFL—I’m tired of the NCAA rules. I’m a ‘win at all costs’ kind of guy—the NFL is just right for me. Although I am not a bounty guy in any form or fashion. 

What you’ve gotta understand about the Pittsburgh Steelers is that they’ll get you for nothing. I ain’t gotta offer them anything. Guys like James Harrison and company—they enjoy it.

Times have certainly changed a lot in the past five years, but James Harrison is still prepared to hit your quarterback—legally—as often as possible. But he needs help.

It was striking how much the sack numbers improved after Bud Dupree made it back on the field. This was, of course, not solely due to Dupree’s return. (In the first few games, he probably had very little effect, and mostly played special teams.) But have a look:

  • Pre-Dupree: 13 sacks total in nine games, or less than 1.5 sacks per game
  • Post-Dupree: 33 sacks in 10 games [including the post season], or almost 3.5 per game on average

It’s never as straightforward as the numbers make it look in a small sample size. The pre-Dupree games had included some of the better teams in the league—the final seven regular season games only included a couple of teams who even ended up with a winning record. Two of those games were against the Browns, who won one game all season.

Furthermore, Dupree’s return coincided with, apparently, a higher comfort level with the very young secondary for Coach Butler, who began unleashing the pass rush more as there seemed to be a reasonable chance of the secondary holding up their end of the bargain.

Dupree wasn’t officially a starter until Week 14, and didn’t get his first sack until that week. But there was no doubt things were coming together, and that it made a difference to give in and admit that Harrison and Dupree were the guys who should be playing most of the snaps.

looking at the sack figures for each game, it is very interesting to see how the guys who were getting the sacks changed. Here’s what it looked like for the first nine weeks:

  • Week 1: W @ WSH; 0 sacks
  • Week 2: W vs CIN; 1 sack (Moats)
  • Week 3: L @PHI; 0 sacks
  • Week 4: W vs KC; 4 sacks (Heyward, 3, V.Williams, 1)
  • Week 5: W vs NYG; 3 sacks (V. Williams and Chickillo, 1 each, Timmons and Moats, .5 each)
  • Week 6: L @ MIA; 0 sacks
  • Week 7: L vs NE; 0 sacks
  • Week 9: L @ BAL; 3 sacks (Harrison, 2; Chickillo and Shazier, .5 each)
  • Week 10: L vs. DAL; 2 sacks (Chickillo and Tuitt, 1 each)

In case you’re wondering, Heyward was injured in Week 5 and didn’t play again.

Here’s a breakdown of the first half sacks:

  • Cameron Heyward: 3
  • Anthony Chickillo: 2.5
  • James Harrison, Vince Williams: 2
  • Arthur Moats: 1.5
  • Stephon Tuitt: 1
  • Ryan Shazier, Lawrence Timmons: .5

Here are the numbers after Week 10:

  • Week 11: W @ CLE; 8 sacks (Tuitt, 2.5; Moats, 1.5, Hargrave, Timmons, Harrison, Shazier, 1 each)
  • Week 12: W @ IND; 3 sacks (Harrison, Gay, Hargrave, 1 each)
  • Week 13: W vs. NYG; 2 sacks (Harrison and Mathews, 1 each)
  • Week 14: W @ BUF; 5 sacks (Dupree, 2.5; Shazier and Tuitt, 1 each, Davis .5)
  • Week 15: W @ CIN: 1 sack (Shazier)
  • Week 16: W vs. BAL; 2 sacks (Dupree and Timmons, 1 each)
  • Week 17: W vs CLE; 4 sacks (Jones, Dupree, Davis, McCullers, 1 each)
  • Week 18: W vs MIA; 5 sacks  (Timmons, 2; Harrison, 1.5; Mitchell, 1, Davis, .5)
  • Week 19: W @ KC; 1 sack (Harrison)
  • Week 20: L @ NE; 2 sacks (Harrison, Davis, 1 each)

Here’s the tally for the 2nd “half” of the season:

  • James Harrison: 5.5
  • Bud Dupree: 4.5
  • Lawrence Timmons: 4
  • Stephon Tuitt: 3.5
  • Ryan Shazier: 3
  • Javon Hargrave: 2
  • Sean Davis: 2
  • Arthur Moats: 1.5
  • Ryan Mathews: 1
  • William Gay: 1
  • Mike Mitchell: 1
  • Daniel McCullers: 1
  • Jarvis Jones: 1

Not that it means anything, but the number of guys who had a sack during that last 10 games is the same as the total number of sacks in the first nine games. I also love the fact that the sacks were coming from all over the field. Hopefully it bodes well for the future. But if you do a little calculating you will see that Harrison’s 7.5 sacks for the season blew everybody else away. The next closest guys are Timmons, Tuitt and Dupree, each with 4.5. Which perhaps doesn’t bode so well.

Here are the OLBs currently on the roster, and some background:

Anthony Chickillo: After a very promising first half of the season Chickillo sort of disappeared, except on special teams. He was injured in Week 16 but tried to play through it. After Week 16 didn’t play again. The Steelers just re-signed him to a one-year contract.

Bud Dupree: He’s still on rookie contract, and assuming he can stay healthy he would seem to be the future at LOLB. In fact he was the starter there beginning Week 14. (There are those who would disagree, and think the Steelers need two starters, one for Harrison’s spot and one for Dupree’s. Time will tell.)

Jason Fanaika: He has already been signed and cut by three teams [SF, OAK, WSH] since going undrafted in 2016. He gets another shot at it with the Steelers.

James Harrison: Is there anything else to say? The Steelers just re-signed him for two years, and I expect they are very much hoping he is fairly quickly displaced for the starting ROLB job.

Farrington Huguenin: This has to be my favorite name of anyone on the whole team so far. And although his name sounds as if he might be invited to tea by the Queen, in fact he looks like an outside linebacker, which is good. He went undrafted in 2016, signed with the Dolphins, and was eventually cut. The bad news for Huguenin is that the Steelers are out of numbers. As anyone who has been to training camps knows, they double up numbers for a while. They assigned him—No. 92. I don’t think I would view this as a good sign if I were him. However, it’s an honor.

Jarvis Jones: Jones is still on the roster but is now an unrestricted free agent. It seems highly unlikely he will still be on the roster on March 10th, although he theoretically could be back if he’s really cheap.

Arthur Moats: Moats is signed through 2017, which suits me just fine. He’s a solid citizen and a solid backup.

It’s pretty clear that unless one of the unheralded guys suddenly turns into the second coming of LaMarr Woodley (pre-contract, that is,) the Steelers need to draft an OLB in one of the high rounds. Or two. Because even if one of the unheralded guys does turn out to be another James Harrison, it took a really long time for Harrison to become Harrison. About five years, by my reckoning. I don’t think the Steelers have that much time…

So I will definitely be looking at OLBs when I compile my Mock Drafts in the coming weeks. But we should take a quick look at how the OLB room is doing at the moment, in terms of BLA*.

And the winner is, Farrington Huguenin, the guy with the fabulous name. Arthur Moats is a fine-looking man as well. But since we need some fresh blood, let’s shake it up a bit. Here’s the evidence—Huguenin is the guy on the right:

Screen Shot 2017-03-07 at 5.34.11 PM

*BLA=Best Looking Available, my patented metric for draft success

**And speaking of BLA, I have to give a shout out to the No. 2 guy “edge defender” as per PFF, Brandon Graham, who was my very first ever first-round pick in my 2010 Momma’s Mock Draft.

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