Harrison Steels away to Who Dey welcome


James Harrison

It's hard to tell who is more excited about the two-year deal the Bengals reached Friday with James Harrison.

Head coach Marvin Lewis or his locker room.

Both have watched Harrison define the Steelers defensive dominance over the AFC North while pushing the Bengals around during the past decade. Now in one of those moves you just never thought would happen and still seems a little surreal, he's expected to bring his 64 career sacks and winning intimidation to Cincinnati's sixth-ranked defense as the starting SAM backer.

"I think it's an awesome signing," defensive tackle Domata Peko said in a text. "You know we have a great defense here already, so to add a person like that to our defense is awesome. He brings a lot of toughness, experience and swagger. We just got better as a team today."

Left tackle Andrew Whitworth, who has gone head-to-head against Harrison twice a year for the past four seasons, thinks it's as big an addition in the locker room as it is on the field.

"It's always exciting to add a guy that has been a great leader and great player in this league," Whitworth said. "He's a guy that plays the game with intensity it takes to win and has done it all."

It certainly doesn't qualify as your typical Bengals signing. Not with Harrison turning 35 in 15 days and a high-profile player in their division, two traits the Bengals usually stay away from.

But Lewis is convinced the Bengals have upgraded immensely at SAM and gives defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer another pressure option in a league that continues to rely more and more on the pass. As Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins said earlier this week, "You can never have enough pass rushers."

"You can't let the offense dictate to you. You need to keep getting the edge for the defense and James helps us do that" Lewis said. "He's been a productive player for so long and he brings so much to the table for us."  

Harrison also adds another deep layer to the emotional cauldron that is the Bengals-Steelers rivalry. Feeling snubbed when the Steelers asked him to take a 30 percent pay cut last month instead of approaching other aging defenders, Harrison took his 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year trophy and went looking for a job.

Harrison's tweet hit just the right note.

"Whodey!!!!!!!!!!! Hello Cincinnati!!!!"

When he got cut, Harrison reached out to Lewis but the deal took some time to take shape as the Bengals focused on re-signing their own. Harrison wanted to be close to his two sons in Pittsburgh. He wanted to play in the AFC North. He wanted to play for a good defense and Cincinnati fit the bill.

But this is how it works in the AFC North. Harrison was set to visit the Ravens, but that went by the boards when they signed Elvis Dumervil. In essence, the Denver fax machine ended up putting Harrison in Cincinnati. Agent Bill Parise brought Harrison in for a visit and a workout last week and once the two sides were able to hammer out the money that would be commensurate with his role in the 4-3, the deal got done. The SAM in Zimmer's defense traditionally plays about a third of the snaps, but the SAM the last two years, Manny Lawson, didn't rush the passer. 

"We are where we want to be," Parise said. "It's a good fit with Marvin. Anytime you've got a great coach and a great player it's a great fit. Any time you sign James Harrison it's a great day. He's happy to be in Cincinnati and he's looking forward to playing in a new defense. That's something he's looking forward to."

There has been some concern externally about Harrison's ability to switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3, but Lewis and Whitworth don't see it.

"The days of a two-gap, 3-4 are pretty much gone. Everybody is pretty much playing a hybrid between a 3-4 and a 4-3," Whitworth said. "Even Pittsburgh. Sometimes it looks like they're playing an under 3-4, which kind of looks like an under 4-3. The only difference is that he was standing up instead of with his hand on the ground."

Whitworth, who has allowed just one sack to Harrison, thinks Harrison has plenty left as he heads into his 11th season and is now the Bengals oldest player with five months on cornerback Terence Newman.

"He had his knee surgery and missed training camp and still had six sacks and he was coming up with big plays," Whitworth said. "When they beat Baltimore (on Dec. 2), he beat (right tackle) Michael Oher for a sack and strip and it led to the winning field goal. He can still make those kind of plays."

Lewis has no doubt Harrison came make the move and be able to play both pass-rush end at times and linebacker at times, as well as blitz. There are those at Paul Brown Stadium that get excited about rolling out an occasional four-man front on third down that sports Harrison and 11.5-sack man Michael Johnson at the ends with end Carlos Dunlap moving inside with Atkins and his 12.5 sacks.

"He can adjust; he was their adjustor in Pittsburgh," Lewis said. "I have no doubt he can do it. He's got that flexibility and he's a smart, hard-working guy. But it all starts with the fact he's physical against the run."    

The signing pretty much means that middle linebacker Rey Maualuga and WILL backer Vontaze Burfict are going to stay put even though some think Maualuga is a better SAM and Burfict a better MIKE. But the Bengals don't see it that way yet.

They're not wild about moving Burfict out of a spot he had 174 tackles as a rookie last season, and while they want Maualuga to get more consistent, they also look at their No. 7 and No. 6 rankings with him in the middle the past two seasons.

The deal also means the draftnicks can take Georgia linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree out of that No. 21 slot in the mock drafts. And any other linebacker for the Bengals in the early rounds.

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