- Coley Harvey, ESPN Staff Writer
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CINCINNATI -- When the Bengals signed outside linebacker James Harrison in April, they began entertaining grandiose plans for how they might use the All-Pro, Super Bowl-winning veteran.
Run support would be logical situations where his intense, aggressive and hard-hitting persona ought to do well, they figured. Maybe in certain pass-rush packages they could line him up just off the line of scrimmage as a defensive end and rush him from the edge, too, they thought.
As long as opposing teams didn't pass too much, the intimidating linebacker would be a major part of the Bengals' defensive game plan.
Through three games, though, it doesn't appear Cincinnati's offseason plans are taking shape. Harrison has spent more time on the sidelines coaching up his teammates and barking orders and reminders at them than assisting with coverage calls and play checks on the field itself. So far, he appears to be a non-factor.
Don't expect that to last.
"He's good," defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said, smiling. "He'll be an impact."
Bengals fans don't appear to share Zimmer's confidence. For the past two games in particular, they have scratched their heads and wondered aloud via social media and team blogs about the big linebacker's purpose on the team. Some have been alarmed by the large amount of nickel defense the Bengals have used this season, and ask why there haven't been concessions made to get Harrison on the field in those situations.
The easy answer? Because opposing offenses just haven't dictated having him on the field.
In Pittsburgh and Green Bay, the Bengals faced two of the NFL's more prolific passing offenses. Both systems are receiver-heavy and force corners, linebackers and occasional safeties to move around in an effort to line up with all the receivers. Zimmer's defense calls for man-press coverage, and requires defenders to prevent receivers from being left in isolated zones. The combination of injuries at cornerback and linebacker forced the Bengals in those two games to rotate more linebackers into nickel coverage than they would have liked. Harrison, who isn't known for his coverage skills, was not one of them.
The fact that both the Steelers and Packers trailed at times in their losses to the Bengals made it even more incumbent upon the Bengals to defend against the pass as the opponents tried to roar back into the respective ballgames. With injuries to their best tight ends in those games, the Steelers and Packers had one more reason to turn to more athletic receivers in their offensive sets. For that reason, from a playing standpoint, the non-covering Harrison suffered.
"It just worked out that way," Zimmer said.
After three games, Harrison has played just 57 snaps, more than 30 below the league average for linebackers. After being used on 38 plays against Chicago in the season opener, his snap opportunities dwindled dramatically against Pittsburgh and Green Bay. He saw just 14 plays against the Steelers and five against the Packers. Harrison currently is averaging 19 snaps per game, while the league average for linebackers is 30.
Before signing with Cincinnati this offseason, the 35-year-old spent 11 seasons in Pittsburgh. In his last five with the Steelers, he averaged 59.8 plays per game.
To his credit, though, Harrison has handled his decreased role with the Bengals with class, according to Zimmer. He very easily could have let the assistant know he was upset by the fact that he's been so seldom used and only has one tackle this season. It appears he hasn't done that.
"I'm impressed with James and his attitude and the way he handles things," Zimmer said.
Zimmer said the Bengals planned on getting Harrison in more often against the Packers in certain blitz packages, but the opportunities didn't really present themselves. Part of that was the product of Harrison still learning some of the blitz assignments with his new team. Another part had to do with the flow of the game and various lead changes. Cincinnati led all first quarter after jumping out to a quick 14-0 lead that forced Green Bay to go into immediate comeback mode. The Packers were passing often. When they took the lead in the third quarter, though, they started running with scat-back style runner Johnathan Franklin.
"I was calling so many blitzes and he was going to be in a different spot, so it was going to be a little unnerving for him because he had a short time to learn all of them," Zimmer said.
Across the next few weeks, look for Harrison on the field more often. Aside from the Patriots in Week 5, few teams on the Bengals' horizon feature the type of wide, multi-receiver offenses that the Steelers and Packers employed the past two weeks. With more time to learn blitz packages, too, Harrison ought to have even more opportunities to play when he faces teams like Pittsburgh again late in the season.
"All I know is he will be an impact for us when all is said and done," Zimmer said.