Steelers Wise to Heed Harrison, Preseason or No

James Harrison laid claim to his place in the Steelers Linebacker Legacy during the team’s 75th Anniversary pummeling of the Baltimore Ravens. As a one man wrecking crew he wreaked havoc on the Baltimore backfield with a fury seldom seen since Greg Lloyd’s departure. Now Harrison is embracing the mantel of locker room leader, and his teammates need to respond to his wake up call.

After two preseason games Pittsburgh’s first string D has allowed two touchdowns and one field goal, while only forced one three and out. As the Post-Gazette reported last Saturday, James Harrison is having none of the “its only preseason mantra.”

According to Ed Bouchette, the reining MVP threw down the gauntlet to the rest of the defense:

It’s not just going to snap around and just come soon as September comes…. You got to go out there and play these preseason games like it’s a real game, no matter how long you’re in there. And I don’t feel like we’re doing that right now.

Harrison’s point is plain: As long as you keep score, winning must be the objective.

Should Steelers Nation be concerned about the defense?

A regular reader of this blog likened preseason football to “watching the paint dry.” (No argument here, but from down here in Buenos Aires, I actually miss preseason football.)

As a rule, preseason results are meaningless, but those games are good gauges for two things:

  • Getting a look at new players

While players do “flash” during preseason only to disappear later on, you usually get a good feel for how they’re going to pan out. Think back to the 1996 preseason: It was obvious that Jahine Arnold would do little more than tease as a professional. In contrast, Carlos Emmons made a convincing case that he was going to out play his 7th round pick status.

  • Evaluating specific units

This one tricky. Preseason performance is frequently, but not always, a good indicator of a particular unit’s health.

It was painfully apparent that Joe Walton had thrown the Steelers passing game into complete disarray during the 1990 preseason. Ten summers ago Bill Cowher struggled to patch together and offensive line, and it was obvious early on that the team’s run blocking was not up to snuff. Last year special teams were a problem from the preseason to the playoffs.

However, in the 2005 preseason, the team’s four quarterbacks posted a collective 62.2 pass rating. They were led by Brian St. Pierre; Big Ben brought up the rear with a 32.8 passer rating.

Bill Cowher simply declared, “Our passing game has not been in synch all preseason.”

Everyone quickly forgot that after Ben began the regular season by completing 72% of his passes for four touchdowns and zero picks against Tennessee and Houston.

Why Harrison’s Words Are Still Necessary

On paper, barring injuries, the Steelers defense should field a stronger unit in 2008 than in 2007. LaMarr Woodley and Lawrence Timmons are posed to boost the team’s linebacking corps, and Ryan Clark’s return should boost the secondary.

What’s troubling about the Steelers defense is the nonchalant, “its only preseason” attitude the some of its players seem to be taking.

The Steelers 2007 defense lacked killer instinct. The pass rush disappeared as the season progressed, and the team gave up leads 5 times in the final minute.

The lack of a power runner and special teams snafus certainly contributed, but those things will happen. When they do, the defense must pounce.

In other words, if the defense is primed for the kill, Tyrone Carter makes a play instead of freezing with his hands on his knees as David Garrard runs 18 yards on third and short to set up the go ahead field goal in a playoff game.

Mike Tomlin is not pleased with his defense’s performance, but he does not share Cowher’s fire and brimstone style. That means that the appropriate attitude must be established from within the locker room, and as Bouchette’s article makes clear, James Harrison has taken that duty upon himself:

We’re not playing or coming out with the same attitude we come out with in the regular season. …You got to show something in the preseason. That’s why we play the damn games.

Facing the NFL’s toughest schedule and doubts about the defense’s ability to close, the Steelers defense would be wise to heed Harrion’s warning.

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