The Steelers have an amazing knack for stocking their roster with quality players and not just the first-round picks. Late-round selections, undrafted free agents and cast-offs from other organizations all seem to find their niche in Pittsburgh. It helps explain how they've made three Super Bowl appearances in the last six years.
Despite all the successes, there are weaknesses. Most cited: the offensive line and the secondary, specifically depth at cornerback. Never, ever mentioned: the linebackers, particularly the outside linebackers.
But that's changing, even if temporarily. For now, we can add one of the Steelers' best players -- and one of the best linebackers in the league -- as a weakness, both figuratively and literally.
James Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, had two back surgeries this the offseason. That, coupled with a lockout that prevented players from participating in OTAs and minicamps, means he's not yet in football shape -- and worse -- not yet at full strength, which is sort of important given his job description.
This was painfully evident during the Steelers' Week 3 preseason game against the Falcons. After flushing Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan from the pocket, Harrison appeared to run out of gas mid-sprint, slowed to a jog and eventually a brisk walk before the play was over. In the scheme of things it barely merited a mention … until you remember that this is James Harrison. His motor is always running.
Well, even a player as tenacious as Harrison is no match for dual back surgeries.
"He's not where he wants to be, he'll tell you that," linebackers coach Keith Butler told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "It's not where he usually is before a season. He's usually in better shape than anybody, but the back surgery slowed him down a little."
Head coach Mike Tomlin has limited Harrison's practice reps, which has also affected his conditioning. "It fatigues you a lot faster, especially when you're trying to deal with an injury, and it really fatigued me out there, I'm not going to lie," Harrison said. "That's something that comes with the territory."
|More Steelers News|
Harrison, who was cut by the Steelers and Ravens before finally sticking in Pittsburgh, is 33 and entering his eighth season. Given his intensity, it's also no surprise that he's frustrated by his current situation.
"It's more trying to get into game shape, trying to get your back to hold up the same as it did on the first play as it will the last play," he said. "That's something that will come with time. The longer I'm out there, the more I get reps in games, the better it will get.
"We got a lot more plays this week than we did last week, and I feel about the same as I did last week. I'm not saying that's a good thing, but it was a lot more plays this week than last week and I feel about the same, so it's headed in the right direction."
Harrison, like most Steelers starters, isn't expected to play against the Panthers Thursday. That means that 2010 second-rounder Jason Worilds will get another opportunity to prove that he can fill in if needed, although he doesn't yet appear to be nearly the player LaMarr Woodley (a '07 second-rounder) was entering his second season.
The good news is that Harrison will be back to his normal menacing self. "I anticipate playing and eventually, yeah, I'll get to full strength," he said. "But, when that will be, I don't know."
For more NFL news, rumors and analysis, follow @EyeOnNFL on Twitter and subscribe to our RSS Feed.