PITTSBURGH — James Harrison spent last weekend standing on the sideline waiting for a call that never came.
The NFL's oldest defensive player didn't take the field for a single snap during Pittsburgh's 26-9 win over Minnesota in Week 2, the first time in more than a decade the five-time Pro Bowler was healthy enough to take his usual menacing spot at outside linebacker and just watched instead.
This isn't why the 39-year-old Harrison signed a two-year extension in the spring. Yet the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year isn't in the mood to expand on what it all means.
"I'm just doing what I'm asked," Harrison said Friday.
And right now, what he's being asked to do is simply be prepared. That's it. The Steelers have relied heavily on Bud Dupree, rookie T.J. Watt and Anthony Chickillo during their 2-0 start. Arthur Moats has played eight snaps. Harrison just four. When Watt left with a left groin issue in the first half against Minnesota, it was the 24-year-old Chickillo who took over. Harrison never strayed too far from defensive co-ordinator Keith Butler, but his No. 92 jersey never made its way into the defensive huddle.
"We appreciate James," head coach Mike Tomlin said. "We know what James is capable of. James will ready himself."
That's never been an issue. Harrison's early morning workouts (portions of which he shares on multiple social media platforms ) have reached a kind of mythic status with his teammates. He's as healthy as he's been during his second act with the Steelers, which includes 15 1/2 sacks since he rejoined Pittsburgh in 2014 following a brief 18-day retirement after an unremarkable year in Cincinnati.
Harrison was arguably Pittsburgh's best pass rushing threat during the team's run to the AFC title game. He picked up 2 1/2 sacks in three playoff games and drew a holding penalty on Kansas City tackle Eric Fisher that negated what would have been a game-tying two-point conversion in the divisional round.
Though Harrison has become a de facto coach in the linebackers room, a group that considers speculation that the franchise's all-time sack leader might be done borderline sacrilege.
"He's more than a teacher," inside linebacker Vince Williams said. "(He's) is still a great player. He made a lot of great plays last year. It's not just like from a mentor perspective, he's not just telling you about things he used to do. These ain't war stories. It's from somebody who can still go out there and do that."
If anything, Tomlin points to Harrison's downturn in playing time as proof the youth movement the linebackers have undergone as a group over the last four years is finally complete. Williams, Ryan Shazier, Dupree, Chickillo and Watt are all 27 or younger. The Steelers never planned on Harrison being their most effective linebacker into his late 30s, one of the reasons he left for Cincinnati in 2013 in the first place.
Tomlin is confident Harrison's tank is not empty. The proof came in late August when Harrison found himself on the field during the second half of the final preseason game, chasing around third and fourth stringers with the same fervency that he summoned so easily in his prime.
The Steelers believe just because Harrison is a spectator at the moment doesn't mean he will remain one over the course of the next four months. He could very well be on the field Sunday in Chicago (0-2). Watt will sit to rest his aching groin, and depth will be tested with temperatures at Soldier Field expected to soar into the upper-80s.
"There will be a time in the season where we'll call on his services and he'll deliver and deliver in a big way, much like he did in the latter part of 2016," Tomlin said. "In the meantime, we're going to continue to roll people and play and play guys that we see fit and not do a real good job of maybe describing our mindset or outlining their intentions because part of it is gamesmanship and part of it will define itself as we move forward."
Harrison, who was cut numerous times earlier in his career before becoming one of the most feared defenders in the game, isn't exactly worked up over getting leapfrogged on the depth chart. This is hardly the first time he's been in this spot. He'll manage.
"My confidence? You don't got to worry about that," Harrison said. "My confidence is fine."
NOTES: Right tackle Marcus Gilbert (illness) is also out against the Bears. ... Defensive end Stephon Tuitt (left biceps) practiced with the starters on Friday and is questionable.
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