At the ripe old age of 37, Pittsburgh Steelers outside linebacker James Harrison is defying the odds. Through 12 games of the 2015 season, Harrison leads the Steelers with 5.0 sacks, and he isn't showing signs of slowing down. He recorded a season-high three sacks to go along with seven tackles, three quarterback hits, two tackles-for-loss, and a pass defensed in the 45-10 blowout victory over the Indianapolis Colts in Week 13.
What Harrison is doing in his 13th NFL season is remarkable. After missing the Week 12 game against the Seattle Seahawks with a knee injury, he played 39 snaps (64.0%) against the Colts on Sunday night. He saw ten more snaps than 26-year-old first round draft pick Jarvis Jones, and 13 more than rookie first rounder Bud Dupree.
It only took one quarter for Harrison to tie Cameron Heyward for the team lead in sacks. All three of his sacks came in the final quarter of Sunday night's bludgeoning of the Colts, and all three came against backup left tackle Joe Reitz.
Reitz, a fifth-year pro from the University of Western Michigan, was filling in for injured starter Anthony Castonzo. At 6-foot-7, 323 lbs., Reitz is a mountain of a man, but he had no answer for Harrison's speed, power and technique.
At 6-foot, 242 lbs., Harrison is built like an alpha male gorilla, it's why many often refer to him by his nickname, "the silverback." It's also what allows him to gain leverage against much larger tackles, and it's the biggest reason he's accumulated 76.5 sacks throughout his illustrious career.
Harrison's first sack of the night came with thirteen minutes remaining in the fourth quarter as the Colts offense looked to capitalize on a first-down-and-ten opportunity from the Steelers thirteen yard line. NBC Sunday Night Football analyst Chris Collinsworth just finished explaining that Pittsburgh rotates its four outside linebackers in order to keep them all fresh, when Harrison blew past Reitz with a speed rush and strip sacked quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. The fumble was recovered by inside linebacker Vince Williams at the 22 yard line, thwarting the Colts scoring opportunity.
Harrison flashed his speed rush and showed tremendous bend while dipping around the edge for his third sack of the season on the play.
Harrison notched his second sack of the game by using his vintage bull rush to walk Reitz into the backfield and bring down Colts third-string quarterback Charlie Whitehurst on first-down-and-ten with 3:57 remaining in the game.
Left outside linebacker Arthur Moats was double teamed by the right tackle and the right guard, the stunt by Cam Thomas and Steve McClendon was picked up by the center and the left guard, and Ryan Shazier's inside blitz was neutralized by the halfback, but Harrison's ability to win his matchup with Reitz was the difference. Harrison is one of the strongest players in the NFL. Once he gets his hands inside and under Reitz's pads, it's game over.
Harrison's third and final sack of the game occurred with 1:57 remaining in the game. The Colts offense was once again presented with a first-down-and-ten opportunity in the red zone, and once again, it was number 92 who came up with a big play for the Steelers.
Harrison used speed, power and technique to beat Reitz on this play. Initially, it appears Reitz is in a great position to keep him at bay, but once they engage, Harrison uses his hands to gain outside leverage and knock the left tackle off balance. After getting around the edge, he displays a quick burst to chase down Whitehurst from behind. Once again, Harrison's ability to win his individual matchup is the difference.
The three-sack performance against the Colts in Week 13 moved Harrison ahead of L.C. Greenwood (73.5 sacks) on the Steelers' all-time sack list. He now only trails Jason Gildon (77.0) for the franchise record.
Mike Tomlin and Keith Butler have been wise to rotate Harrison, Moats, Jones and Dupree in order to keep them fresh in games and throughout the season. There's no superstar in the group, but they're all capable players who each bring a unique skill set to the table.
The Steelers rank No. 3 in the NFL in sacks (35), right behind the New England Patriots (36) and Denver Broncos (41), but Harrison and Heyward lead the team with just 5.0 sacks a piece. Patriots linebacker Chandler Jones, and Broncos linebacker Von Miller, meanwhile, lead their teams with 10.5 sacks and 9.0 sacks respectively.
The all-hands-on-deck approach seems to be working just fine for the Steelers, and its helped keep Harrison fresh for the stretch run. The veteran linebacker's contract runs through the 2016 season, and given the way he's performed, it shouldn't be a surprise to anyone if he decides to continue playing for another year.
Another monster performance by Harrison would go a long way toward helping the Steelers take down the 10-2 Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14.