Steelers won't replace Harrison's toughness

March, 9, 2013
3/09/13
1:18
PM ET

When the Steelers announced the release of linebacker James Harrison on Saturday, finding a pass-rusher became as much of a priority as nabbing a running back.

As of today, the Steelers would have to rely on Jason Worilds or Chris Carter to step into Harrison's spot, and there's no confidence that either can handle the job. The Steelers can look to the draft and hope someone like Georgia's Jarvis Jones falls to them at No. 17 next month.

But let's be honest: No one is going to replace Harrison's toughness, mean streak and steely-eyed stare that struck fear into anyone lining up across from him. Harrison was more than a pass-rusher. He was a quarterback crusher. Every team in the AFC North knew it had better find some pass-blocking tackles or Harrison would be hitting the quarterback all game.

Remember last season when Peyton Manning talked about returning to football and half-jokingly begged Harrison not to blindside him?

[+] EnlargeJames Harrison
Charles LeClaire/USA TODAY SportsJames Harrison helped Pittsburgh's defense become one of the NFL's elite with his intensity and work ethic.
Harrison was as fierce a tackler as he was a competitor. Teams would double-team him, and he would find a way to drop a running back for a loss. Teams would cut block him, and he kept coming back. He played with so much tenacity that you would forget he was only 6 feet tall. He always loomed larger.

For some, Harrison will always carry the label of a dirty player. He became the first player suspended under the NFL's enhanced enforcement of player safety violations after a vicious hit on Colt McCoy. He had so much money taken away for illegal hits -- more than $100,000 -- that the NFL should have named its fining system The James Harrison Fund.

That shouldn't get in the way of what Harrison represented on the field. He has the gritty mindset of an old-school player and was the backbone of the top Steelers defenses over the years.

"James has been an integral part of our success during his years in Pittsburgh and has helped us win two Lombardi trophies during that time," Steelers general manager Kevin Colbert said. "We appreciate all of his efforts and wish him the best.”

So, was this a bad move for the Steelers? It's a bad move for both sides. The Steelers don't have an immediate replacement for Harrison, and Harrison probably won't make as much elsewhere as what the Steelers offered.

The Steelers believe Harrison can still play. If they didn't, they would have cut him instead of trying to negotiate a pay cut. In the end, the Steelers couldn't pay him $6.57 million in 2013. He was too much of a liability in terms of age (turns 35 in May) and injuries (missed a total of eight games the past two seasons).

Another team will sign Harrison because he can still get to the quarterback. Even though his sacks have decreased the past two seasons, he has at least six sacks in six straight seasons. And there's no doubt a team will get a determined Harrison who wants to show the Steelers that he can play at a high level.

This is nothing new with the Steelers, who are always trying to get under the salary cap. They got nose tackle Casey Hampton to take a pay cut last year and did the same with running back Jerome Bettis twice. Still, this won't go over well in the Steelers' locker room, which already has had its problems this offseason. Harrison was one of the most respected players within the organization, and his departure puts more pressure on LaMarr Woodley to rebound from last year's disappointing effort.

The news of Harrison's release makes it a good day for Joe Flacco, Andy Dalton and whoever is starting for the Browns. But for the Steelers, this was more than parting ways with one of their best defenders over the past decade. They said goodbye to one of the toughest players ever to wear the Black and Gold.

Jamison Hensley

ESPN Ravens reporter

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