James Harrison still performing at high level

At age 37, Pittsburgh Steelers OLB James Harrison is our seventh-ranked edge defender.

| 2 years ago
(AP Photo/Don Wright)

(AP Photo/Don Wright)

James Harrison still performing at high level

Think back to Super Bowl XLIII in February 2009, right before halftime: Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison made arguably one of the most memorable plays in the game’s history, intercepting Cardinals QB Kurt Warner and returning it for a 100-yard touchdown as the second-quarter clock expired. Harrison was 30 years old, helping the Steelers to the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl.

Fast-forward to today, and (albeit with brief detours in Cincinnati and retirement) Harrison is still with Pittsburgh. Along with PFF’s No.2 ranked 3-4 defensive end Cameron Heyward, Harrison is leading a revitalized Steelers’ defense that is currently fifth in the NFL in points-per-game allowed (18.0).

Harrison’s journey from NFL stardom, to retirement, to now vital contributor at the usually long-gone age of 37, is an amazing one. Undrafted out of Kent State in 2002, Harrison bounced around with the Steelers and Ravens practice squads, and even spent time in NFL Europe with the Rhein Fire before finally being signed by the Steelers and making the roster in 2004. In his first three years with Pittsburgh (2004–2006), Harrison was primarily a special teams contributor, and only started eight games over that three year period. Then, in 2007, after Joey Porter was released, Harrison was named the starter; he then put together an impressive five-year run of consistently stellar play (the numbers below do not include postseason games):

Year Games played 3-4 OLB positional rank Total QB pressures Sacks
2007 16 2nd 32 10
2008 15 1st 57 17
2009 16 3rd 57 10
2010 16 2nd 58 11
2011 11 7th 43 9

In 2012, Harrison played in 13 games with declined performance. After that season, Pittsburgh released Harrison. Then, in 2013, he played only 383 snaps for the Cincinnati Bengals (compared to 1022 with Pittsburgh in 2010), and many thought Harrison was done when he announced his retirement in August 2014. However, with injuries mounting for the Steelers in the beginning of last season, they brought Harrison back into the fold.

Since then, he has proven that there is definitely something left in the tank. In fact, Harrison is playing at a level not duplicated by someone at the LB position his age during the PFF era. Let’s compare him to two other long-time standout players at the LB position who played their last season at age 37—London Fletcher and Ray Lewis.

Year Age Grade Snaps
London Fletcher 2011 36 +12.7 1,033
London Fletcher 2012 37 -19.2 1,047
Ray Lewis 2011 36 +18.4 800
Ray Lewis 2012 37 -3.6 453
James Harrison 2014 36 +15.4 439
James Harrison 2015 (six games) 37 +13.6 251

It’s quite evident that Harrison is not just getting a paycheck and participation trophy this season—he is excelling. With Le’Veon Bell performing as the best RB in the league, and Ben Roethlisberger close to returning, if Harrison and the rest of the Steelers’ defense can continue its solid play, the 6-0 Bengals may have a challenger for AFC North supremacy.

  • Riffle,Rod&Fly

    The time in Cincy was a classic AFC North reconnaissance mission.

    • corners

      for just 2 games of intel?

  • AJ

    It’s difficult to really compare his pure grade to Lewis and Fletcher because edge rushers tend to have higher pure grades than inside linebackers. But I guess those two are the only real options for comparison because no other edge rusher plays significant snaps at that age. Just out of curiosity, how would he compare to a guy like John Abraham, who was also productive at an advanced age?

    • Frank

      Abraham’s final season was in 2014 (36), where he was placed on IR after the first game. He was quite productive in 2013, but his performance declined each season from 2011 on

      2011: 32.2 (33 years)
      2012: 19.4 (34)
      2013: 12.4 (35)

  • crosseyedlemon

    Players with the cheap shot credentials that Harrison holds never last to the age of 37 so that is the real story here. Even Roger Goodell couldn’t run the guy out of the league though he gave it his best shot.

  • overscored

    I’m sure it’s mostly because he didn’t play many meaningful reps until he was almost 30, not to mention he missed a lot of games from 2011 2014. He simply doesn’t have as many miles as guys like Ray Lewis or London Fletcher (both career starters) had.

    Honestly, I think his wall is just pushed back a bit because of, comparatively, how few games he’s been an every-down guy.

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    • corners

      but we all know how hard harrison plays. 7 years of that for any body is a lot of punishment. It wasnt like he wasnt in the league