At age 39, linebacker James Harrison is the oldest player on the defense for the New England Patriots, but he could turn out to be the most vital part of their postseason success.
Harrison comes with more than just experience and leadership. He plays with an edge that many believe the New England front seven has been missing this season. His age may become a factor deeper into the playoffs, but in the end, it is what Harrison can do on and off the field that will make the biggest difference.
Patriots’ defensive leadership has been hurting since Dont’a Hightower was placed on injured reserve five games into the regular season. With him gone, the defense has looked for someone to come up through the ranks to take the reins and spark new life into the defense. Although they have been playing well as of late, there is still a clear lack of leadership on the defensive end, especially within the front seven.
Harrison has the experience and leadership to come in and direct the defense. He may not play every snap of the game, but during the week’s preparations, he can give the defense tips on how to put pressure on the quarterback.
When he is on the field, he can start to assume the role of calling out plays and directing the defense in front of him. When asked about Harrison’s veteran presence, Trey Flowers said, “[I can learn] a whole lot, whether it’s stopping the run, pass rush, things like that. Anytime you get a vet that’s been doing it a long time, you can learn a lot from him.”
Being one of the oldest guys on the team isn’t always a bad thing, but it may limit how many snaps he gets during the game. In the three seasons after his first “retirement”, Harrison played 41 out of 48 regular season games and six postseason games. His productivity has not gone down.
Last season alone he played 18 total games, including playoffs, and had a total of 73 combined tackles and seven and a half sacks. His productivity levels have not tapered off as he has grown older. In fact, he has become more reliable and consistent.
Yes, he is older, but this season he has been limited to only five games. His body has not had to go through a rigorous amount of strain for the past few months, which could help him play more down the road in the playoffs.
One of the biggest contributions that he can make to the team is his insight to the Pittsburgh Steelers and their offense.
With a close victory over the Steelers on Dec. 17, the Patriots gave themselves a huge advantage in the hunt for the first seed. Harrison brings play calls, tendencies, and cadences for each player on the Steelers. Most of all, he brings knowledge of Ben Roethlisberger and his weaknesses.
He knows if or when Roethlisberger rolls out of the pocket and which plays he likes to call most at the line. Having been with the organization for almost 13 seasons, Harrison’s knowledge of the Steelers cannot be matched and could make the difference if the teams meet again in the postseason.
What Harrison can do on the field for the Patriots is yet to be seen and there are many unanswered questions. One thing is for certain; Harrison will be able to start answering all those on Sunday.