Do I have access to the medical staff of the Pittsburgh Steelers? No. I have heard directly from James Harrison that he's making considerable progress regaining his strength after two offseason back surgeries limited him physically all summer? No. That's just to say that I'm speculating based on very little concrete evidence outside of what I saw with my two eyes last Sunday during the Steelers' 35-7 loss to the Baltimore Ravens. And what I saw was not the same dominant James Harrison that we're used to seeing terrorize the league, but nevertheless Deebo played a fairly strong game that encouraged me to believe that he's going to be just fine as the season progresses provided he doesn't suffer a setback.
Harrison had 9 tackles in Sunday's loss, many of which came well past the line of scrimmage. His lone impact play came on a 4th and 1 deep inside Pittsburgh territory when he stood up a blocker and stopped Ray Rice for no gain. Deebo obviously looked a tad less explosive than what we're used to seeing from him, but he didn't look weak or slow. Just not quite at full strength. Harrison suffered a knee contusion during the loss, but according to the team, the injury is not serious and should not bother him this coming weekend when the Steelers host the Seattle Seahawks.
We often hear that the Steelers are a completely different defense when Troy Polamalu is not playing or is not at 100 percent. But what about James Harrison? I think it may be him, not Polamalu, that is the catalyst for everything the Steelers like to do defensively. Without a healthy Harrison, there is no pass rush that opens up playmaking opportunities for the guys behind him, including Polamalu. Don't get me wrong. Without Harrison at or close to full strength, it's suddenly not quite so difficult to beat the Steelers at the point of attack and successfully rush the football. He's that strong and that fast, easily covering one-third of the field on all plays within a matter of seconds.
Of course, if LaMarr Woodley doesn't play better than he did against the Ravens, Harrison will have a hard time returning to dominant form. Michael Oher absolutely abused Woodley on Sunday, a disturbing development that I hope doesn't repeat itself when the two teams meet next in Week 9. But assuming Woodley feasts on lesser competition as he's done for all of his career, both he and Harrison should be able to play off each other more successfully and again create the kind of harassing pass rush that the Steelers fire zone blitz schemes are predicated on.
So, fear not Steeler Nation. Or at least I'm not just yet, because of the simple fact that I think Harrison is well on his way to getting back to his menacing, impossible-to-defend self based on his performance against Baltimore. He won't be fully back this weekend, or next weekend, but if he can improve just slightly each week, he's going to be just fine. And in turn, so too will the collective play of the Steelers' defense.