Bengals Shouldn’t Have Cut James Harrison
Oct 20, 2013; Detroit, MI, USA; Cincinnati Bengals outside linebacker James Harrison (92) during the game against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports
Prior to the 2014 season, the Bengals chose to move on from veteran linebacker James Harrison electing to give younger players more opportunity. This decision made sense in theory, but the Bengals far overestimated some of the youth on the team. The Bengals’ defense struggled this year and could’ve used a veteran presence in several ways.
James Harrison has always been known as a stout run defender. For years, he sealed the edge for the Steelers while reading and reacting effectively to plays while often tackling runners in the backfield.
A strong rush defense would’ve helped greatly in a division that featured strong rushing attacks. Both Le’Veon Bell and Justin Forsett finished as top five NFL runners with 1,361 and 1,266 yards respectively. Even the Browns enjoyed a strong running game featuring rookies Isaiah Crowell and Terrance West until Alex Mack was injured and the quarterback play collapsed.
The Bengals finished the year with the league’s 20th best rush defense. It was a far cry from where they needed to be and where they were in the past.
James Harrison’s presence would’ve helped mightily. His ability to stop the run would’ve helped the Bengals gain much more favorable third down situations while not asking so much from the secondary.
The Bengals ability to get to the quarterback was no better than atrocious this year. Opposing quarterbacks enjoyed great time to scan the field and pick the defense apart.
Dec 28, 2014; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton (14) passes the ball under pressure from Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison (92) during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Frankly, if it wasn’t for the stellar secondary play, the defense could’ve been much worse. In retrospect, it was hardly surprising. Young linemen such as Margus Hunt and Will Clarke couldn’t have been expected to produce much; both were seen as “project” players when they were drafted. Meanwhile, Paul Guenther was in his first year as the defensive coordinator, so his struggle to find ways to employ his linebackers in the pass rush is hardly surprising.
James Harrison’s pass rushing prowess could’ve helped the Bengals greatly in situational moments. His ability to line up both as an edge defender and as a tackle would’ve greatly improved the defensive line’s productivity. If you question this, just look at Harrison’s 2014 stats while considering he only played 11 games; he was signed only after the Steelers have suffered a few injuries.
James Harrison is a bona fide defensive legend. His resume speaks for itself and makes Harrison a surefire Hall of Famer. These accolades were not gained simply on athletic ability. In fact, it was Harrison’s knowledge and dedication to the game that really set him apart from his peers.
Harrison began his career as an undrafted free agent. It’s a story that several of the Bengals’ linebackers can appreciate as many of them began their careers under similar circumstances or were late-round selections. It was due to his relentless effort and an astounding work ethic that Harrison worked his way “up the ranks” and became the player he was. He became an outstanding leader and a defender to be accounted for at all times.
The 2014 Bengals lacked this kind of leadership and veteran presence. When Vontaze Burfict was unable to play due to injury, which was most of the season, the Bengals struggled to find a “field general.” Emmanuel Lamur took over these duties for a period, but struggled to remain effective with the added responsibility. Rey Maualuga proved to be much more effective in this way than he had been in the past, but being a situational run defender meant that he only played on 39.5% of plays; not to mention, Maualuga was also missed four games due to injury. The Bengals’ defense was hindered all season without a true leader on the field.
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Harrison’s knowledge of the game would’ve been vital for the Bengals. He’s an experienced player who’s seen just about everything across his 11 years. But instead of the Bengals retaining his services, he was cut during the off-season only to eventually return to his Pittsburgh roots. Instead of the Bengals enjoying his presence, a divisional rival did.
James Harrison’s release from the Bengals was a mistake. Understand that hindsight is “20/20,” this doesn’t change the fact that the Bengals vastly overestimated some of their youth and failed to realize how little leadership there was amongst the group. The change at defensive coordinator should’ve been there first indication of needing extra leadership.
If the Bengals’ defense is to return to its past dominant form, they will need to make several adjustments in each facet of the game. But in the future, they may want to examine things a little more closely before releasing a presence like James Harrison. He had a highly productive year for the Steelers, and had the Bengals not released him, it could’ve been production they enjoyed instead.