Yesterday, the New England Patriots added to their defensive arsenal by signing veteran linebacker James Harrison to a one-year contract. The 39-year old, who was released by the Pittsburgh Steelers on December 23, brings a lot of experience to the Patriots but having played only 40 defensive snaps so far this year it is fair to question just how much of an impact he will actually have.
In order to come closer to answering this question, let's take a look at the film to dissect Harrison's five games to find out a) how the Steelers used him, b) why they used him so sparingly, and c) what all this might mean for the Patriots defense moving forward.
Week 1: at Cleveland Browns
On opening day in Cleveland, Harrison played only four defensive snaps – all on the same first quarter drive. It was an early sign of what was ahead of him in terms of playing time and usage: The veteran played exclusively from the defensive right edge against the Browns and attacked the pocket mostly from a 7-tech position with the last of his snaps coming from a wide-9 alignment in a second-and-goal situation.
Overall, Harrison had little impact in his limited time on the field. On the first two snaps, he used a bull rush from the offensive tackle's outside shoulder. He was able to get a solid push in a one-on-one on the first attempt, but was stymied on the second versus two Cleveland blockers. Neither of his rush attempts had any impact on the results of the two pass plays.
His last two snaps of the game came against the run, the first of which being Harrison's lone impactful snap of the day. From his 7-tech spot, the veteran was able to beat the tight end to the inside in the Browns' pull blocking scheme. And while he was not credited with a tackle, Harrison did get his hands on Isaiah Crowell's legs to help stop him short of the goal line. The 39-year old was not in a position to stop the ensuing one-yard quarterback sneak for a score.
Week 3: at Chicago Bears
After being inactive in week two, Harrison was back in action versus the Bears – but as has been the case on opening day, he had little impact. What was different, however, was how Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler used the five-time Pro Bowler during the three snaps he played: Harrison, whose snaps again came all on the same series, dropped back in coverage on two of them.
Following a botched snap on his first play on the field, Pittsburgh asked the veteran to cover the defensive right flat on two occasions. On neither of the snaps he was targeted, although he did play physical against the running back entering his zone on the first of the two. Still, all in all it was a quiet day for Harrison, who had to play second fiddle to rookie T.J. Watt.
Week 6: at Kansas City Chiefs
Harrison's most productive day of the season came in week six during his team's win against the Chiefs. The veteran was on the field for 15 of a possible 54 defensive snaps and again played exclusively from the right side, even though this time he also played off the line of scrimmage. Overall, Harrison was used on four different drives and finished with a sack as well as three tackles.
On his first play, Harrison dropped back into the defensive right zone and ultimately tackled Tyreek Hill for minimal gain. It was a positive early impact for the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, who played as a more traditional inside linebacker on his second snap. However, Harrison's A-gap rush did not have any effect, as did his following two plays against the pass.
Harrison's next drive, in the third quarter, saw him employed in multiple ways: He rushed from both the 7-technique alignment as well as on an A-gap stunt – leading to a hurry – and was used in coverage of the running backs, again in the right-side flat. Harrison also registered a tackle when he touched a sliding Alex Smith down after a minimal gain.
Not only did Harrison wear multiple hats against Kansas City, he also showed a more varied approach to his pass rushing. While he mostly relied on his bull rush against the Browns, he used some moves less dependent on his strength and more on his movement skills. Going mostly against the Chiefs' Eric Fisher, Harrison found some success, especially in the fourth quarter.
On a third down pass he was able to get around Fisher's outside shoulder but ultimately did not impact the play or quarterback – unlike on the next series: Harrison rushed around the 2013 first overall draft pick twice registering a quarterback hit on the first attempt and a sack on the second. The sack came with Harrison moving from a 5-technique alignment to a 4-technique prior to the snap but ultimately attacking Fisher to the outside to take down Smith.
Week 7: vs Cincinnati Bengals
While Harrison looked good one week earlier, he had some noticeable struggles in week seven against Cincinnati. Overall, the linebacker was on the field for parts of two different drives in the first and second quarters. On the first series, Harrison played three snaps; dropping back into coverage one time while rushing twice – once from a 7-tech alignment, once late from his inside linebacker spot. On neither play, he did have any noticeable impact.
The second of his drives started with Harrison failing to properly set the edge in the running game: From his 5-tech position off the defensive right side, he rushed too far to the inside and was outrun towards the boundary. Two plays – Harrison dropping into coverage and a bull rush with no noticeable results – later, the Bengals were able to score a touchdown on a pass that saw Harrison rush from a wide-9 set but easily blocked by the running back.
Week 14: vs Baltimore Ravens
In terms of playing time, the Steelers’ Sunday night contest against the Ravens was Harrison’s second-busiest game of the year. He was on the field for 11 snaps in all four quarters. Again, Harrison was a) used to give T.J. Watt a breather every now and then, b) played exclusively from the defensive right side, and c) had minimal impact on the actual plays he was part of.
Unlike earlier in the year, Pittsburgh did not move Harrison back off the line versus the Ravens. Instead, he played most of his snaps from a wide-9 position, with the occasional inside shift on a stunt or a drop back into zone coverage. At the end of the day, though, Harrison did little in his limited playing time other than allowing Watt some time on the sidelines.
What does all this mean for the Patriots? The most noticeable observation is Harrison's positioning on each of the plays. He was used off the line of scrimmage on three occasions, with the vast majority of his snaps taking place from his spot on the right end of the defensive line in either a 5-, 7- or 9-technique alignment. This approach is a little different to how New England uses its outside linebackers.
While Kyle Van Noy, Marquis Flowers and the injured Dont'a Hightower, for example, see regular playing time on the line of scrimmage, they also play more than just a handful of snaps off it. Harrison, at least this season, did not do that. Consequently, it would not be a surprise to see the Patriots use him more as a defensive edge in the mold of Trey Flowers, Deatrich Wise Jr. and Eric Lee than a traditional linebacker.
If this were indeed to happen, Harrison would most likely be to Trey Flowers what he had been to T.J. Watt in Pittsburgh: A rotational player to at best offer a quality blend of pass rush and edge setting behind the starting option; a player that is not a liability but one whose impact can also be minimal at times. The Steelers opted to employ him that way as they clearly wanted to give higher-upside rookie Watt as much snaps as possible.
The Patriots might very well do the same with Flowers playing the role of Watt. But of course, there is also the chance that the Patriots move Harrison to the defensive left – a position that has not produced the desired results in the first season without Rob Ninkovich – or use him as a sub edge rusher when Flowers is moved inside in obvious passing situations. Nothing too fancy in terms of playing time, but regular snaps in both roles.
The Steelers opted not to explore options like the latter two in 2017 and instead used Harrison simply as a right-side edge defender who occasionally was asked to drop into coverage or run stunts. Don't be surprised if New England goes with a different approach and moves him around the formation more to take advantage of his strengths: his pass rush, which is based a bit more on strength than pure technique, and his ability to diagnose plays and set a hard edge versus the run.
He did all that versus Kansas City, when the two-time Super Bowl winner was put into different positions and followed up by producing his best game of the season.