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Don’t underestimate James Harrison’s potential role with the Patriots

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The veteran joined New England earlier this week.

NFL: Pittsburgh Steelers at Chicago Bears Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The acquisition of James Harrison has certainly provided some juicy content. Beyond the noise, it’s fair to wonder what role Harrison might play. It’s reasonable to be skeptical of a 39-year-old who barely played for his own team during the first 16 weeks of the season. The consensus is that Harrison will provide support for the anemic pass rush. But, given the lack of depth at edge, don’t be surprised if Harrison contributes as a three-down player.

It’s tempting to question whether Harrison can be effective in the Patriots’ system after spending his career playing in the Steeler’s 3-4 defense. The reality is that the proliferation of the spread offense has forced teams into dime packages more than ever. So, while Pittsburgh still runs a 3-4 as their “base” defense, you’re just as likely to see them with five defensive backs and two linemen instead of a traditional 3-4. While Harrison has primarily been an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, it doesn’t mean Harrison hasn’t been asked to do a variety of things for the Pittsburgh defense.

Below are two images of the Steelers’ defense against Baltimore. Both feature Harrison. The first image is a second down. Harrison is lined up in 7-technique (inside shoulder of the tight end) with the Steelers using only two down linemen.

The next image shows Harrison lined up in wide 9-technique on a second down play. This isn’t that different from what he’s asked to do in a traditional 3-4, but the Steelers feature only two down linemen.

Even though the Steelers have historically played a traditional 3-4 throughout Harrison’s career, like every other team in the NFL they’ve been forced to adjust their personnel to account for the spread offense. Harrison isn’t arriving in New England with a complete lack of experience in positions other than a traditional 3-4 linebacker. He should be able to pick up multiple concepts fairly easily.

Speaking of multiple concepts, the Patriots’ defense is built for versatility. The personnel reflects New England’s philosophy of being matchup specific. To say the Patriots couldn’t incorporate an outside linebacker from a 3-4 defense is foolish. Edge is an especially fungible position in New England’s defense: “edge” can mean Trey Flowers lined up over the tackle on one play and Marquis Flowers in wide-9 the next.

Below are some examples of the diversity of New England’s defensive formations. The first play shows a four-man front with three down lineman and Kyle Van Noy standing up on the edge. This is a first down. Van Noy’s role was filled by Cassius Marsh before Marsh was cut, and Van Noy will likely see reps there when he returns from injury. But the Patriots will likely want to use Van Noy at linebacker at times, so Harrison should see some time in the four-man front.

The next image is also a first down, but the Patriots’ feature a five-man front with Alan Branch over the center and Marquis Flowers (#59) standing up outside the tight end. This isn’t that much different than a 3-4, save for Eric Lee lining up with his hand on the ground and the interior linemen playing different techniques. Both Lee and Flowers are responsible for setting the edge, Harrison can easily slide into either role.

The above images showcase New England’s versatility in formations. Visualizing a spot for Harrison, regardless of down and distance, is not hard. He could easily play on the edge of New England’s five-man front, where the Patriots often feature two stand-up edge players. He should also see action in the four-man front, which usually features Trey Flowers opposite a stand-up edge player.

James Harrison won’t be a savior for the Patriots’ defense. It’s not like New England just signed Luke Kuechly. But he’s also likely to be more than just a situational pass rusher. New England’s defensive formations are designed to accommodate players with different skill sets, and Pittsburgh has been adjusting their 3-4 defense for years. It’s not like Harrison is going from a rigid 3-4 outside linebacker to strictly a 4-3 linebacker.

And while guys like Eric Lee and Marquis Flowers have played admirably, the edge rotation is arguably the weakest it’s ever been in the Belichick era. James Harrison will get a chance to establish a role for himself. Given his pedigree, don’t be surprised if he becomes a three-down, rotation player for the Patriots.