Cincinnati is now home to two of the most feared hitters in sports, James Harrison and Joey Votto, and as expected, Harrison didn't lay off any softballs when he uttered his first public words as a Bengal on Tuesday.
"I’m not a guy that sugarcoats anything. I say what I feel and let the chips fall where they may," Harrison said of his conversation with Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis before he agreed to a two-year deal. "It was just a real candid conversation. He was the same way with me."
Lewis is one of the guys taken aback at the debate centering around how Harrison fits into the Bengals 4-3 defense and linebackers coach Paul Guenther's corps of players. Harrison and Guenther themselves are also surprised.
Harrison got to five Pro Bowls, helped key two Super Bowl championships, and won the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year by rushing the passer and that's what he'll do here. He'll be the starting SAM backer on the outside in the Bengals base defense and then used as an extra rusher in passing situations.
During his media conference call Tuesday from where he's working out in Arizona, Harrison said there is little difference in his role the Bengals have mapped out compared to what he's done in Dick LeBeau's 3-4 defense the past nine seasons.
“It’s not really a concern. Some of the defenses that we do are the same terminology. The coverages are the same, it's just you might switch from side to side," Harrison said. "I’ll be playing sometimes stack like a regular inside linebacker that would play a 3-4.
“It’s a difference because you’re playing with an extra lineman. The only difference for me is I’ll be switching from side to side and playing stack in some of the situations. Not really much difference from what I was playing in Pittsburgh, especially nickel defenses. I played inside. It’s not really a big difference that everyone thinks there is.”
Guenther and Lewis hosted Harrison on his visit to Cincinnati two weeks ago and the Bengals are convinced that not only does Harrison upgrade them at SAM, he gives them another pass-rushing weapon for a team that set a club-record 51 sacks last year.
Pro Footbal Focus, a web site that grades players, dropped Harrison in its pass rushing productivity rankings for 2012, ranking him 19th out of 32 3-4 outside linebackers after he had been in the top five from 2008-2011. But the site ranked his run-stopping and ability to get off blocks very highly. PFF ranked him third among all 3-4 outside linebackers in the run game and 10th overall in its position rankings.
Not only do the Bengals feel that Harrison sets the edge better than Manny Lawson, their SAM the past two seasons, but they also feel like his rush is going to be revived playing around other accomplished pass rushers. Harrison won't get as worn down because he'll be playing about 30 to 40 percent of the snaps instead of more than 70 percent.
Plus, last season Harrison fought back from the knee surgery that wiped out his first three games, which the tape and numbers don't take into account, and he still led Pittsburgh in sacks with six. After watching the tape of Harrison late in the season after he got his legs under him, Guenther is impressed.
“When you watch the game tape from last year he started off a little bit slow coming off the injury but as the season progressed he got better,” he said.
Plus, the Bengals saw him work out only two weeks ago.
"He did (well). To be honest, most guys at that point in his career wouldn’t do that," Guenther said. "But he did. He went out there, stretched and did the workout and he did great. Looked great in my opinion."
Guenther also thinks he could play a bunch more than Lawson did (a little less than a third of the time) and that he'd be able to stand up to playing regular pass-rush snaps if someone gets dinged.
And, maybe the most important thing is that Harrison says this is the best he's felt physically since his 16 sacks netted him Defensive Player of the Year.
"I’ve been able to get the time to rehab my knee. I’ve been out here in Arizona getting a lot of work in that I wasn’t able to do the previous two seasons because of injuries or whatever it may have been," Harrison said. "I’ve had the opportunity to come out and start rehabbing the knee. Last year I just went straight into it. Even though you’re ready to play it doesn’t mean you’re at your top ability to go out there and play. It just means you’re able to go out there and produce well enough where you’re not a hindrance to your team."
Harrison came off as advertised Tuesday, a no-nonsense, football-only Pro Bowler looking to play for a contender and get back to the Super Bowl. He answered questions thoughtfully, such as when asked what the missing piece is for the Bengals to get over the hump.
"Missing piece?" repeated Harrison. "I don't really think it's a piece. It's more consistency. Being more consistent. I'll leave it at that."
He elicited a bunch of laughs when he was asked about revealing LeBeau's secrets if the offensive coaches ask him.
"If they want to know some things, then, yeah, I'd be willing to give information, of course. I know where my check comes from," he said.
And when it comes to leadership, Harrison just doesn't want to hear about it because he says he'll bring his own brand of leadership by example.
"You can talk and you can make it sound good but you probably can’t play the game," Harrison told a questioner. "You can talk, you can make it sound good but you’re probably not going to be in there grinding, working out for two hours a day at 6:30, six o’clock in the morning. Anybody can talk."
Harrison says he has "mutual respect" for Bengals left tackle
"He's held me away from the quarterback quite a few times and I've had a little success here and there," Harrison said. "That's something I don't have to even worry about anymore."
He laughed when asked if Whitworth held him away legally.
"Legally, of course," he said. "They're not going to give me a call. I'm too short, y'all know that."
But Harrison isn't a bowl of laughs. He's a serious man. A man that leads the NFL in fines when it comes to hits, but largely seen as a fierce, passionate throwback instead of a rule-breaker. Yet Harrison understands that there are varying perceptions of him.
"You may look at the guy on the field and think, ‘Oh my God, he’s a crazed maniac’ and all this other stuff, everything that they portray, but that’s not me," Harrison said. "I take an approach like Coach LeBeau has been telling us for years. He told us you go out there and prepare as if everything depends on you. Preparation and prayer is the reason I’m where I’m at right now. I’ve been lucky to be playing in a system where I had a lot of success and I had a lot of coaches that helped me along the way, you know, Coach LeBeau, Keith Butler.
"And I had teammates that were out there taking care of their part and I was doing my best to take care of my part. I think when you have a group of selfish players—and by saying that I don’t mean you want a guy that’s all about me, me, me, but I want a guy out there who’s worried about his job, his responsibilities—a group of 11 guys that are all worried about their jobs and their responsibilities, then everything will take care of itself. That’s what I mean when I say a group of selfish guys. That’s how you're being selfish, you make the team better and you’re a bonded, closer group."
If he sounds like a Marvin Lewis guy, it's because he is. Not only that, Harrison didn't go around spreading gasoline around the Sept. 16 Paul Brown Stadium opener, when he sees his old Steelers mates on a Monday night date after he refused what had been reported as a 30 percent pay cut.
"I don’t have a chip on my shoulder against the Steelers. I don’t hate the Steelers. All the things that they’re saying, the media is blowing it up to be," Harrison said. "Am I disappointed? Yeah, I’m disappointed. But when the negotiations first started, I basically knew the situation was going to be what it was going to be. My compromise wasn’t going to come to theirs and theirs wasn’t going to come to mine, which made business sense for them. They did what they did, and what made business sense for me, I did what I did, so we had a parting of the ways. I wish them the best except for when we play, and of course I’m assuming they wish me the best except when we play them."
He is the most feared hitter in the game. Votto looking at a 3-0 count. And, yet, Harrison doesn't throw around the word hate. Here's how he described the Bengals-Steelers rivalry:
"Hate is a strong word. I wouldn’t say hate," Harrison said. "It’s a competitive, strong-spirited disagreement between two teams and at the end there’s mutual respect. I feel the same way about any team in the division to be honest with you."
Votto is up, Harrison on deck.