Patriots

Patriots

FOXBORO -- James Harrison is here for a reason. That reason is not to provide the Patriots with Steelers intelligence. Not primarily, at least. 

We laid out the factors that led to Harrison's addition soon after the 39-year-old's signing was announced on Tuesday night. The long and short of it is that Patriots have had needs on the edge all season long. With Rob Ninkovich retired, Chris Long in Philadelphia, Jabaal Sheard in Indianapolis, Kony Ealy in Jersey with the Jets, and Dont'a Hightower, Shea McClellin and Derek Rivers injured, they've been searching for help at that spot for months. Harrison's signing could be critical for a group that has received valuable contributions recently from players like Eric Lee, Marquis Flowers and Deatrich Wise.

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"There’s been a lot of transition there," Bill Belichick said on Wednesday. "We've put a lot of time into that position and the players themselves have put a lot of time in, even though it’s been a number of players. It’s probably getting close to double-digits now. We've got a lot of guys that have worked hard at those spots in various roles or assignments in different personnel groupings and so forth. We'll just keep working at it."

Rushing the passer. Setting the edge. Occasionally dropping into coverage when needed. That's why Harrison's in Foxboro. Not to unload the Steelers defensive playbook on Belichick's desk. 

 

"Well, we're playing the Jets this week," Belichick said when asked if Harrison could provide information leading up to a potential rematch between the AFC's top two teams. "I don’t really know what that has to do with it. Maybe I’m missing something. I don’t know."

The Patriots still have plenty to play for in Week 17. A hiccup against the Jets, though unlikely, could doom their chances at home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. 

If the Patriots do happen to see the Steelers down the line, however, it would come as no surprise for the coaching staff to cross-reference some of their observations of Pittsburgh's defense with Harrison. Film study is the No. 1 indicator of what's to come -- the eye in the sky don't lie, as the saying goes -- and the Patriots have proven to be well-prepared offensively for the Steelers in recent years, averaging 34.6 points per game over their last five. Harrison could then fill in the gaps on any lingering questions Josh McDaniels or Tom Brady might have.

But even those types of nuggets aren't guaranteed to help. Take what happened in Week 14, for example. The Patriots were slated to face off with Jay Cutler and the Dolphins, and they had a valuable source of intel on Cutler in backup quarterback Brian Hoyer. The two spent the 2016 season together in Chicago, and Hoyer had some tidbits on his former teammate for Belichick and Matt Patricia's defense. Cutler went on to have his best-ever game against the Patriots, throwing for 263 yards and three touchdowns in a 27-20 win for Miami. 

ESPN analyst and former Saints linebacker Jonathan Vilma seemed to have it all figured out when he broke down the Harrison signing. 

"It's all intel," Vilma insisted. "James Harrison, you know how it is, great players, they're the last ones to know when they don't have it anymore. Everyone else sees it . . . Hell of a player, but right now he doesn't have it."

If Harrison ends up a healthy scratch through a run to the AFC title game, smiling in the Gillette Stadium press box all the while because he's screwing the team that screwed with his playing time, then Vilma will look prescient. But given the depth the Patriots have at Harrison's position, he could be in line to play -- and play fairly regularly -- in short order. Any intel he has on his former club seems like a side benefit.