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Friday, December 13, 2013
Harrison's homecoming will be all business

By Coley Harvey

CINCINNATI -- If you think tears will be streaming down James Harrison's face Sunday night when he's introduced at Heinz Field, you better think again.

Actually, come to think of it, if you really think Harrison will show any type of emotion while standing on the Cincinnati Bengals' pregame sideline, then you must know some other player. The James Harrison who ruled the Steel City for all but one of his 12 professional football seasons doesn't show those kind of emotions publicly.

The persona the linebacker has carried onto the field his entire career is someone that is mean, intimidating and perpetually scowling.

James Harrison
James Harrison's role in the Bengals defense has increased during the season.
"He's going to be gruff about everything he can," Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. "That's his fun; to always be on edge and to keep other people on edge."

This game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Bengals may seem like a different one to those who knew Harrison by the way he mauled running backs and frightened quarterbacks while wearing the black and gold. But for Harrison, this game is business as usual.

Because of an illness that forced him to miss the last two days of practice this week, Harrison wasn't around to hold court with reporters and discuss his return to Pittsburgh. That's OK. It's not like he would have said much about it anyway.

The only time he did speak about the game was early in the week when Bengals radio announcer Dan Hoard casually asked Harrison if he was looking forward to going back to Pittsburgh. Harrison simply told Hoard the game wasn't a big deal.

His teammates weren't surprised to hear he felt that way.

"It's just a regular game for us," linebacker Vontaze Burfict said. "It's so many guys in this room that played for other teams already, so it's no big deal for me."

It isn't like this is the first time Harrison has played against the Steelers. An offseason acquisition, he was with Cincinnati back in Week 2 when the Bengals hosted Pittsburgh on a Monday night. He didn't see much action in that game, though, playing only 14 snaps.

Since then, he has grown more accustomed to the terminology of Cincinnati's defense. Because of his familiarity and because of defensive tackle Geno Atkins' season-ending injury, Harrison's playing time has increased dramatically during the season. Lately, to give the Bengals another big, athletic body on the line in Nickel situations, Harrison has been regularly filling Atkins' spot. He has remained a force at linebacker, too, coming up with a clutch interception, and producing timely stops in goal-line situations.

"He's understanding the defense, he understands what packages he's in," Burfict said. "For me, now I don't have to tell him he has to do this, he has to do that. He understands when he gets out there and he just flies to the ball."

While Burfict has been helping Harrison catch on, Harrison has been helping the second-year linebacker and others in the position group in ways he probably doesn't even know.

"One thing about James that I didn't know is that he's a very consistent man," linebacker Vincent Rey said. "If he's going to lift on Monday extra, he's going to lift every Monday extra. The entire year. Guys see that and everyone in this building already is competitive, so we see that and we try to lift extra with him.

"Sometimes we can't keep up."

Don't worry. Neither could some of Harrison's former teammates.

"His edge on the field, especially when he was here, it couldn't be contagious because it couldn't be matched," veteran Steelers cornerback Ryan Clark said. "You knew you couldn't run the ball at him, you couldn't run the ball away from him. You had to protect with more than one person. You couldn't put tight ends or running backs on him. That's the thing that permeated throughout our defense because he constantly made plays. He constantly put others in position to make plays because of things he wouldn't allow offenses to do."

A lot of that starts with Harrison's personality, Clark said. Why couldn't that personality be matched?

"Nobody really wants to be as big of a jerk as James can be sometimes," Clark said.

That is precisely why you won't see an emotional Harrison on the Bengals' sidelines. He probably won't shed a tear in the locker room before the game or after it, either. But maybe at some point this weekend, in a quiet place where the world isn't allowed, Harrison will fondly reflect on his return.

That's because deep down, he really isn't the James Harrison we all know.

"James' personality was kind of created by him and also by the people around him; the media," Clark said. "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."

Perhaps Harrison will sneak a little Kleenex in his business-trip briefcase.