Paul Guenther has always believed, in the end, James Harrison is going to fit seamlessly and efficiently into the Bengals 4-3 defense. But the Cincinnati linebackers coach is even more convinced after viewing one of the snippets from Wednesday's OTA session at Paul Brown Stadium.
That's when the 6-foot, 242-pound Harrison found himself matched up in the uncomfortable space of the red zone with one of the more deadly quick weapons the AFC North has to offer in Bengals slot receiver Andrew Hawkins.
Harrison, 35, eight years older and roughly 60 pounds heavier than Hawkins, shadowed him enough from his SAM linebacker spot on a wheel route that Guenther observed, "He did pretty well."
"I don't question one iota that he can do what we're asking him to do," Guenther said. "When he knows what to do, he'll be as good as any other linebacker in coverage. On third down, we'll build him into our world."
The World According to Harrison seems to fit in the Bengals orbit because it's pretty much the same one he inhabited in Pittsburgh as one of the NFL's most feared sackers of the last several seasons. As brusque as he is with the media, he's as accessible to his teammates.
After the first pause 3:20 into his post-practice interview in front of his locker, he playfully clapped his hands Wednesday.
"All right, don't be taking too long to get with the next question," Harrison commanded. "You have to snap to it. Let's go."
Well, maybe not that playfully as it turned out because two minutes later after another pause, he politely gave it a perfunctory ending.
"All right, let's go, see you all later," he said as he turned back to his locker.
But he'll talk to his mates all day long. He's been here just two weeks and has already figured out that right end Michael Johnson is going to pick his brain until all that's left is the memory of the 100-yard interception return five Super Bowls ago.
Johnson says Harrison has invited him to Arizona to train with him after the Bengals workouts end in mid-June and Johnson can't wait to learn even more out there even though he's already got $11 million in the bank this year as the Bengals franchise player.
"I'm just trying to learn. He's 35 and still doing it. That's the kind of guy you want to learn from," Johnson said. "He's a cool guy. He's keeping no secrets. He's sharing knowledge. Not only in the game, but how to take care of yourself to play the game."
Devon Still, the second-year Bengals defensive tackle, hasn't hesitated, either, chatting up Harrison. And why not? It was the Baby Still who came home from the hospital swaddled in Steelers garb 24 years ago this July, and when his father wanted to know recently just how big Harrison is, he told him "He's like a big muscle walking around."
Still read about how Harrison says he spends "half a million" annually on his body to keep it NFL healthy at age 35. But when Still picked his own part of Harrison's brain, Harrison told him something else is needed to stay around a long time.
"Just stay focused as much as possible. A lot of guys get complacent at this level," Still recounted. "They get lazy. But if you want to get to the NFL, you have to step it up to another level and let people know that you're here. He's been talking a lot to guys, sharing his knowledge of the game."
Harrison has also been talking to Guenther and defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer, and his sense is that the Bengals are going to have him rush the passer more and drop into coverage less than the Steelers did with him the past few seasons.
He seems intrigued with blueprints that call for him to use his quickness sometimes on the pass rush inside at tackle while ends like Johnson, Carlos Dunlap and Wallace Gilberry continue to swarm the edge, home of their combined 22 sacks last season and most of Harrison's 64 career sacks as the Steelers 3-4 right outside backer.
"(Zimmer) is doing some things that will hopefully get me some one-on-ones with a lot of interior linemen. Let the guys who were here continue to do the outside rushing that they were doing," Harrison said.
But the Bengals want to keep the offense guessing. Guenther notes that when the Steelers had Harrison and left outside backer LaMarr Woodley on the edge, offenses would leave the center on the nose tackle while the guards and tackles fanned out to the ends, as well as Harrison and Woodley.
"Now when he's behind the line of scrimmage, that's not always something offenses can do," Guenther said. "They'd have to really jerry-rig the protection to get him a lot of the time.
"Hopefully we get him in a situation where he's doing enough coverage things that keep teams honest as far as how they count him. Are they going to treat him as linebacker, lineman? Everyone in the NFL knows that James is an effective pass rusher. It's proven. Right now he's learning the base end of things as far as first and second down and when we start getting more specific in situational stuff, once he gets the baseline down, everything else comes easy."
One easy thing to know about Zimmer is once he finds out what Harrison can and can't do in his 4-3, he'll only use Harrison accordingly. Like Guenther, Zimmer has high hopes for Harrison as a cover guy so he gives the offensive coordinator more headaches in protection.
"We're actually looking at him in some coverage situations in nickel just because if we have him in there somebody's got to block him," Zimmer said. "I had Greg Ellis play for me in Dallas. He was a defensive end. When we went to the 3-4 we played him at outside linebacker. What we did for him was we put it in just like we normally do and then we figure out what he's not good at doing and then we ask him not to do those things.
"That's what we're doing with James. We're giving him everything that we'll normally do and if there are some things that we can help him by making some checks or different calls off of it then we'll fix that part of it without changing the entire concepts of the defense that we do."
Another easy thing to know about Zimmer is that he has based the Bengals defensive resurgence with three top seven finishes in the past four seasons in the team concept. Harrison obviously gets it.
Zimmer has watched him take extensive notes. Johnson has watched him compete in the weight room with the early morning group. Guenther has watched him come through his door many times in this spring semester of extra office hours.
Harrison may be a five-time Pro Bowler, but in this oasis of pass rushers there is already a franchise player in Johnson and a two-time Pro Bowler in tackler Geno Atkins. He gets it as he talks about the thing that has impressed him the most about this defense.
"We haven't had a chance to get down to it, but just from the last year it's how much pressure they get on the quarterback with just their four down linemen," Harrison said. "I don't care how you want to describe them. They're getting the job done. That's all that matters."
The Bengals seem to have the same mindset about Harrison.
"We could do a lot of things," Johnson said of a potential nickel front of himself and Dunlap sandwiching Atkins and Harrison inside.
"Who would they block? Let them figure it out. Zim will cook up something."