The Steelers announced Saturday that right tackle Marcus Gilbert has been activated following his four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. This was expected. What came as a surprise, however, was the player they cut to make room for Gilbert: James Harrison.
Harrison, the Steelers' all-time sack leader at 80.5, appeared in just five games this season, the last coming in Week 7 against the Bengals. He has played 40 snaps in total, or 8.1 percent of the defense's total plays, according to Pro Football Focus. By comparison, Harrison played on 65 percent of snaps a season ago when he registered five sacks and two forced fumbles. But his playing time has been nonexistent this season, primarily because of the emergence of rookie first-round pick T.J. Watt, who has started 13 games and has six sacks, an interception and a forced fumble.
Earlier this month, Harrison told NBC Sports' Michelle Tafoya that he wouldn't have signed a two-year deal with the team in the offseason if he knew he wasn't going to see the field. Days after Harrison's comments, coach Mike Tomlin explained to Steelers.com writer Bob Labriola why Harrison been relegated to the bench.
"[The outside linebacker] evolved within the last decade, since I've been here," Tomlin said. "Outside linebacker was a rush-man's position in the early part of my tenure. Guys like LaMarr Woodley and James Harrison were defensive-end-like. They rushed the vast majority of the time. With the evolution of spread football, read-option football, RPOs as the college guys call it -- run-pass options -- and all the empty backfield stuff, it has become a hybrid position, where they're asked to do a lot of things: rush, drop in zone, play man-to-man."
That explains why the team drafted Watt, and before him, Bud Dupree -- and also why Harrison, as hard as it is to fathom given his productivity, became expendable.
ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler reports that the parting of ways was "amicable" and that Harrison, , wants to keep playing.
"We'll see what Santa brings us," Harrison's agent Bill Parise told Fowler.