Updated: 9:25 p.m.
One thing Bengals WILL backer Vontaze Burfict and Steelers safety Ryan Clark have in common this week is they're interested to see what kind of reaction James Harrison receives Sunday (8:30 p.m.-Cincinnati's Channel 5) on his return to Pittsburgh's Heinz Field.
Burfict can't wait, so he's going to go out there with Harrison.
"I am pretty sure there will be some boos and probably cheering going on; that's the game," Burfict said before Wednesday's practice. "That's the NFL. I am pretty sure I'm going to be walking out with him so I can absorb that. It's going to be great for him to go back there and be able to play against his crowd. I am kind of excited to see if there is going to be more cheers or boos."
Clark, who played with Harrison for seven seasons, heard the Heinz boos for former Steelers wide receiver Mike Wallace last Sunday in the loss to Miami. But Wallace took the money in free agency. The Steelers decided not to pay Harrison and put him into free agency.
"Hopefully (the welcome is) a good one. James did a lot of great things here," Clark said to the Cincinnati media in Wednesday's conference call. "A lot of those No. 1 defenses were in large part to the efforts of James Harrison. Hopefully they cheer him. Mike Wallace got booed last week but his situation was a lot different than James's situation. So hopefully they give him the reception he deserves."
This is the kind of compelling figure Harrison has become at age 35 on a defense he is helping lift with his sheer will. Mentor. Bully. Hall of Famer. Nice guy. Big Game James. So many things to so many people. Even with the Bengals battling for the AFC North, Harrison back in the building where he personified two Steelers Super Bowl titles is more than a subplot.
"You can't take anything away from James Harrison's career. He's won, he's been a great player and he helped a team win championships. Guys like that eventually end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis.
"That's what he's done. You can't take away from that, and being a big bully along the way with it. A very respectful bully, and that's the best part of him. As you say, he has an edge. He has an edge in preparation, he's ready to play on Sundays, he knows how important practice is, and everything about it. To be a backup on special teams, he understands why he's on punt team and all those things, because he knows what it takes to win a game on Sunday. We can't script how it's going to unfold. He's going to be ready if he's at the point of attack and he's challenged."
Lewis's form of bullying is locker room stuff: "He's going to be gruff about everything he can be. That's his fun. We spend a lot of time together and guys have to have fun. That's his fun, to always be on edge, to keep people on edge."
Harrison has become a huge factor for Cincinnati since the last time the clubs met, when the Bengals won at Paul Brown Stadium in the second week of the season, 20-10, as he played just 14 snaps at SAM backer. There was no room for him to rush, but with two-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins injured, defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer has borrowed Harrison from his SAM backer spot and used him in the pass rush rotation like the Steelers did in the glory days as a stand-up rusher at end. Zimmer has even lined him up that way at tackle at times. Harrison has two sacks, but a bunch of pressures whole continuing to be stout in the run at SAM.
Last Sunday against the Colts he played 52 snaps, and about 30 of them were up front. His interception and monstrous return at SAM ignited 31 points and dragged the Bengals out of a 13-0 hole last month against Cleveland.
"I sat here I don't know how many weeks ago, when there were weeks that James wasn't getting as many snaps, and every snap he got he was making an impact in the football game," Lewis said. "That continues to be true. Obviously, he's played more and more now. With the loss of Geno, we've kind of reconstructed and reconstituted some things we were doing.
"When the weather changes too, teams change a little offensively, and we see more of the personnels that put James on the field, some of our other defenses a little more. He's been consistent. For me as a coach, he's a good guy to have who really has helped the young group of linebackers continue to prepare and push forward like a pro, and not allow them to have the ups and downs that seem to creep in when you have young players too much. His eyes are on the target, and that's a good thing."
But Clark doesn't remember Harrison as a warm and fuzzy mentor.
"I mean, you've tried to talk to him. You know it's tough to get a conversation out of James," Clark said.
That doesn't mean Harrison wasn't an enormous influence on his teammates.
"The things you learn from James, you learn by the way he works. To watch a guy in the weight room who works as hard as he does in season and out of season," Clark said. "To watch a guy that when he practices, he practices with a weight vest. He goes hard every play. He runs to the ball every play. He works on his rush moves every play. And this is even after he was named league defensive MVP. When you see a person who's accomplished what he's accomplished and made the money he's already made and to still continue to work the way he's worked? That is contagious. And it's not only contagious, it's at least setting an example of what it takes to be a great football player. James did all those things while he was here."
Clark laughed when asked if Harrison's personality is contagious.
"Not really. Nobody really wants to be as big of a jerk as James can be sometimes," Clark said. "James's personality was kind of created by him and also by the people around him; the media. He kind of played into it. And now, he's forgotten that he's actually really a nice dude. For us, the James I know is not the guy that everybody else knows."
DALTON NAMED: Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton has gone from four tough weeks to AFC Offensive Player of the Week to become the first offensive player in Bengals history to win an NFL award three times in a season when he was honored Wednesday for his play in the 42-28 victory over Indianapolis last Sunday.
Dalton threw three touchdown passes and ran for another touchdown while hitting 69 percent of his 35 passes for 275 yards and a passer rating of 120. After winning AFC Offensive Player of the Month and one Player of the Week in October, Dalton struggled in the next four games with six touchdowns and nine interceptions and a passer rating of 60.1. But he was flawless against the Colts and is on pace to finish with a career-high 31 touchdown passed while jacking his career winning percentage to .622 in 45 NFL starts.
Safety David Fulcher had three weekly awards in 1989.
NO RESPECT: Clark, who played in his first Bengals-Steelers game in the heart of the rivalry in 2006, says he doesn't think the Bengals respect the Steelers. And he's not saying that's a bad thing as the rivalry evolves into another chapter.
"The game is changing. For a while, with Carson (Palmer) and Chad (Johnson) and T. J. Houshmandzadeh, the games were very competitive. They were winning and then we went through a lull where we were beating the Bengals pretty regularly," Clark said. "But now with this young group of individuals they have there now, these good skilled players with an extremely good defense, I think the game has picked up a little bit.
"I don't think they necessarily understand the history, or know the history, or care about it. So I don't think there's a lot of respect for the Pittsburgh Steelers in Cincinnati. Those guys play hard, they play that way. They talk. So for me it's exciting. It's always good to play against good players, players who feel like they're better than you. It's a good game for both teams."
The Bengals probably wouldn't phrase it that way. Led by a head coach who is a Pittsburgh native and a former Steelers assistant, the respect for the Steelers at Paul Brown Stadium is enormous. But in the wake of last season's 13-10 win in Pittsburgh that put them in the playoffs and knocked the Steelers out, the Bengals hope it goes a long way in getting them over the hump against their biggest rival. The win back on Dec. 23 was the first one over Pittsburgh since the Bengals swept the Steelers in 2009.
NEWMAN SITS: Cornerback Terence Newman (knee) and running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis (illness) were the only players not suited up for Wednesday's 35-degree, windless practice inside PBS. Right guard Kevin Zeitler had a full practice Wednesday for the first time since his Nov. 10 injury. Safety George Iloka (concussion) has passed the league protocol but went limited Wednesday. So did Burfict (thigh), wide receiver Marvin Jones (shoulder), and defensive lineman Wallace Gilberry (knee).
As the Bengals readied to wear shoulder pads for Wednesday's practice, Burfict, who just happens to be the NFL's leading tackler, joked that safety Reggie Nelson wasn't very happy about it. No surprise, though. The Bengals often wear shoulder pads on Wednesday, as Lewis works within the parameters of the NFL Players Association-limit for padded practices in a season.
Some players seemed surprised it was happening this late in the season, but Lewis said he plans those sessions far in advance and it had nothing to do with the slew of missed tackles that contributed to the first two Colts touchdowns on Sunday.
Wednesday's work was relatively brisk. There was no wind and 35 degreees, but Lewis is going to work the team inside Thursday at the University of Cincinnati bubble.
HALL TIMETABLE? According to the calendar, cornerback Leon Hall tore his right Achilles in Detroit back on Oct. 20 a total of 24 days before he tore the left one on Nov. 13, 2011. He was back for the start of training camp in 2012 and he's hopeful he can do the same in 2014.
"You don't want to just compare them … it's the same injury but it may respond differently, you never know," said Hall, who surfaced in the locker room Wednesday in a boot with no crutches. "It's responded so far exactly how I've wanted it to and how the trainers have wanted it to, but it's so early and you just never know.
"Sometimes with this one you kind of go as the tendon allows you to go. But for the most part, it's going to be the same number of weeks I had in a cast and the same amount of weeks in this boot and so on and so forth."
When Hall got hurt this time, the way he grabbed at his foot just as the play was over was chilling déjà vu. His head buried as he sat on the Gatorade bucket was pure heartbreak for the best NFL cornerback nobody knows.
"I did know, unfortunately. The feeling felt all too familiar," said Hall, the Michigan product playing in a sort of homecoming. "It was a lot going through my head. Anything from I had a lot of family at the game to: Not again. One of those deals. It was a bunch of stuff."
It was the first time anyone had a chance to ask Hall about Michigan going for two to win it at the end of the game against Ohio State last month and getting the ball picked off.
"You might as well," Hall said. "Honestly, nobody expected them to be in that position against Ohio State. You've got a chance to win the game."