It began as an either/or proposition, and it came to be assumed that would never change. But then against the Bengals last Sunday at Heinz Field, Ryan Shazier and William Gay both were on the field for the Steelers defense at the same time.
Harrison became a full-time starter at right outside linebacker in 2007, after Mike Tomlin was hired and Joey Porter was released. And so it was through the next six seasons, until 2013 rolled around and Harrison was cut in the offseason after refusing to take a pay cut. That was followed by the Steelers using their No. 1 pick in the draft on Jones, who came to the NFL after leading the NCAA in sacks in back-to-back seasons.
During the third game of the 2014 season, Jones injured a wrist and Harrison came out of retirement to return to the Steelers and to the right outside linebacker position he had owned for six distinguished seasons. When Jones came back later in 2014 as the Steelers' injured reserve/designated-to-return option, the sharing of the position began. And so it continued throughout 2015 and during the camp/preseason phase this summer.
Over that time, there had appeared to be a clear delineation of left outside linebackers and right outside linebackers on the Steelers depth chart. Jones and Harrison were on the right side, and Arthur Moats, Bud Dupree , and then Anthony Chickillo on the left side. That plan was disrupted – as most football plans can be – by injuries, and when Dupree landed on injured reserve as a result of surgery for a sports hernia, the Steelers reassessed their options.
Following an opener in which Jones played 42 defensive snaps (72 percent) and was tied for second on the team with six tackles, and Harrison played 26, had three tackles, including one for loss, and ended the game with an interception in the end zone, the either/or Jones-Harrison strategy was re-thought.
"Jarvis has played well for us, and we want to find ways to allow him to continue to play even as we rotate others in," said Coach Mike Tomlin at his weekly news conference today at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. "He has been the guy we have identified as being capable of playing either side, and it's simply that."
Against the Bengals, both Jones and Harrison played more than they had against the Redskins, and Harrison again closed out the Steelers victory with a takeaway, this time by forcing a Tyler Boyd fumble that Robert Golden recovered.
"James is a unique guy, unique in a lot of ways," said Tomlin. "He still is a formidable guy, whether we ask him to rush or to play some underneath coverage. He's a team player. He's back and playing because he wants to win, and those are not just words. He lives it. He does whatever it is we ask him to do. He's made some quality splash plays at the end of ballgames for us – a red zone interception against Washington and then that caused fumble a week ago being examples of that."
Being that Jones is going into his fourth NFL season, the Steelers had a decision to make about whether to exercise the fifth-year option on the contract he signed as a rookie. The Steelers decided against that, and Jones could become an unrestricted free agent in March 2017. There's a lot of football to be played between now and then, and for the time being there will be times when Jones and Harrison both are playing outside linebacker together.
"Just the natural maturation process of being here four years, I'd imagine there is not only increased growth not only in knowing what to do but the detail within that," said Tomlin about Jones' ability to play both the left side and the right side. "Ultimately, that's probably what produces positive play, not only for Jarvis but for anyone."
TOMLIN'S INJURY UPDATE
"Markus Wheaton appears to be ready to go, but as always we'll let his practice participation be our guide in terms of his availability, but very optimistic there. Similar things can be said about Cody Wallace. Rosie Nix would be next, but probably with not as much optimism as the first two I mentioned. He will participate in some form or fashion on Wednesday in a limited capacity, and then we'll go from there. Not many bumps and bruises from our last performance, which is a good thing. I may give a veteran guy or two off Wednesday. Le'Veon Bell has been working hard and toting the ball for us. I gave him last Wednesday off, and this week I may do similar things in an effort to preserve him."