Intrigue now added to AFC playoffs

Commentary

PITTSBURGH — As if there weren’t already enough intrigue between the Steelers and New England Patriots.

The one-sided rivalry took another interesting turn Monday afternoon with the news that James Harrison had signed with the Patriots.

Although he spent an inconsequential 2013 season with Cincinnati, Harrison has been the heart and soul of the Steelers defense for more than a decade. Abrupt with the media, he’s been beloved by teammates, who admire his dedication and fanatical work ethic.

The Steelers brought him back this season as a “safety net,” according to assistant coach Joey Porter. They haven’t needed him. So Harrison has either been on the bench or not even in uniform for games.

The first awareness that he was upset with his limited role came during an NBC telecast. Reporter Michele Tafoya said Harrison told her that he wouldn’t have signed with the Steelers if he had known he would play so sparingly.

Did that lead him to ask the Steelers to release him? Shortly before the team left for Houston late last week came the unexpected announcement that Harrison had been dropped to clear a roster spot for Marcus Gilbert.

Before Harrison signed with the Patriots, coach Mike Tomlin made a couple references to “business.” Because the Steelers still owed Harrison the full value of his contract, this isn’t a money issue. He was going to get paid.

They apparently thought it was more important to keep seldom-used defensive lineman Daniel McCullers than Harrison. That makes the decision to cut Harrison all the more curious.

However, signing him makes perfect sense for the Patriots. Is there Steelers-related information to be gleaned from Harrison in advance of a possible AFC Championship Game re-match? Is there a psychological edge in forcing the Steelers to have Harrison as an opponent in their biggest game of the season?

When Bill Belichick is involved, it could be just about anything. The Patriots have been penalized for stealing opponent’s signals and for deflating footballs to gain an edge. It’s doubtful the Patriots can fall back on current video to justify signing Harrison. He’s only been on the field for 40 snaps so far this season.

He was much busier last season, basically filling a full-time role when younger linebackers failed. The Steelers spent this spring’s first-round draft pick on T.J. Watt with the idea that he would learn quickly and lessen the need for a 39-year-old at outside linebacker. They’ve been right.

The Steelers had to adjust when Harrison was on the field. He can no longer cover receivers, so that duty fell to others. He can still rush the passer. He has a career’s worth of tricks and techniques to help him with those duties. Nobody is more determined.

So maybe in late January, we’ll see Harrison sack Ben Roethlisberger at a critical moment in the game that determines who goes to the Super Bowl. A whole bundle of interesting possibilities opened up once Harrison signed with the Patriots.

Whatever happens, the Steelers’ season has taken a decidedly unexpected twist in the last few days.

Mehno can be reached at johnmehnocolumn@gmail.com.

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