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James Harrison still a work in progress within Steelers' defense

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James Harrison has been a shell of himself since returning to the Pittsburgh Steelers but he considers himself a work-in-progress and believes he can still help the defense in 2014.

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

By Dale Grdnic

PITTSBURGH -- Things probably haven't worked out the way James Harrison envisioned when he came out of a brief retirement and returned to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 12th NFL season.

The Steelers (3-2) are 1-1 since Harrison came back, and he has played less than 40 percent of the defensive snaps with just 50 total in the two games.

"I'm not where I want to be right now, but week in and week out it gets a little better,'' Harrison said Wednesday. "So, we'll see how far and fast I progress. Like I've said, I haven't done any football-related stuff, up until the last two weeks, since January. So, I've got a lot of time to make up for it.''

For a guy who rarely came off the field during his heyday with the Steelers -- when Harrison was wrecking opposing defenses, paying huge fines to the league for that carnage and also playing on special teams -- one would get the impression that Harrison was frustrated with his progress and surprised that he hasn't gotten up to game speed by now.

"No, it doesn't surprise me,'' Harrison said. "Things take time. If you were trying to lose weight, you're not going to lose all the weight that you want to in two weeks. Are you? ... OK. It takes time.''

Maintaining Harrison's analogy, he hasn't lost more than a couple pounds in the past two weeks. He has made just two total tackles, including one solo, with one measly quarterback pressure. No one expected him to be an immediate game-changer for the Steelers defense, but more of an impact is needed.

With his history in games played at Cleveland (2-2), where the Steelers visit Sunday, this could be the week that Harrison breaks out. First, there was the game that he started because Joey Porter was ejected during warm-ups. There also was the time he body-slammed a fan who ran out on the field. The big plays and violent collisions are too numerous to mention, but it's safe to say that Harrison is not a fan favorite among those in the Browns' Dog Pound.

"You know, it's going to be loud, but it's always loud up there,'' Harrison said. "They have a good group of fans that like to keep it interesting, and they're going to come out and play their A game. So, we need to play our A game to keep with them.''

Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger believed this could be as fired-up as the Browns have been to face the Steelers since they returned to the NFL in 1999. An Ohio native, Roethlisberger is 9-1 in games played at Cleveland.

"This is as big of a game probably in Cleveland, in a while,'' Roethlisberger said. "Just because of their record, our record, us coming in there, AFC North and the rivalry that's there. I anticipate it being a hostile environment, maybe like nothing I've ever seen up there before.''

The Browns have several high draft picks on their offensive line, including former third overall pick Joe Thomas at left tackle and 2014 second-rounder Joel Bitonio (35th overall) at left guard. The two primarily will be charged with keeping Harrison away from quarterback Brian Hoyer.

"They're working good together,'' Harrison said. "Their zone blocking is very good, and they're working good as a unit. They're cohesive as a unit, and their play has shown it. They average something ridiculous like 140 yards a game rushing (143.3 in four games).''

Hoyer's play has been a big reason why the Browns might be a little more excited about this year's rematch, that's much earlier than usual in this season's schedule. A late interception last week during an amazing comeback win that set an NFL road record, since the Browns had trailed by 25 points, was Hoyer's first.

"He doesn't turn the ball over,'' Harrison said. "He makes good decisions, and he might have just one turnover in the last four games. So, he's not beating himself. He makes good throws and good decisions, and they put him in position to do what he's best at doing.

"So, they're doing what they need to do to compete at a high level. And their two losses were close, so it's not a stretch to say that they could be 4-0.''

If Harrison plays anywhere near the level he reached in previous games against the Browns, their fans could go home muttering his name once again. If not, might Harrison reconsider his decision to return to the Steelers?

"It's been fun, and everything happens for a reason,'' Harrison said. "I'm here, because that's where I was meant to be. So, I'll say: 'Yeah, it was the right decision.' ''

Notes: ILB Ryan Shazier (right knee) practiced on a limited basis Thursday, going through drills individually without working with the rest of the team, while CB Ike Taylor (right forearm) and S Shamarko Thomas (hamstring) did not practice. ... Taylor is out again this week, while Thomas is unlikely to play as well. ... SS Troy Polamalu did not practice for a second straight day, but this was listed as not injury-related.

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