Two decades ago, Ben Roethlisberger and James Harrison faced each other on the gridiron for the first time. Harrison got the better of his future teammate that day, sacking Roethlisberger four times and helping lead Kent State to a victory over Roethlisberger’s Miami (Ohio) Redhawks.
Three years later, the former Mid-American Conference standouts would become teammates in Pittsburgh. Together, they would help the Steelers add to their collection of Vince Lombardi Trophies. Both players etched their names in NFL lore in Super Bowl XLIII. Harrison’s 100-yard interception return for a score is arguably the greatest play in Super Bowl history. Trailing late in the game, Roethlisberger directed a game-winning, 88-yard drive that ended with his touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes.
Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, retired after the 2017 season as the Steelers’ all-time sack leader. And while Harrison is enjoying his new phase in life, Roethlisberger and the Steelers are enduring considerable criticism following Pittsburgh’s second consecutive loss. The Steelers now face the unenviable task of trying to beat Aaron Rodgers and the Packers at Lambeau Field this Sunday.
Harrison recently spoke with CBS Sports about Roethlisberger, the current state of the Steelers, former teammate T.J. Watt, and his future chances at being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Harrison also talked about his recent partnership with USAA and their Safe Driving Campaign.
The Steelers could have used you this past Sunday. What are your thoughts on the current state of the team?
JH: “I’m not going to bail on the season. I’m still optimistic about the defense, I think once the guys get back, get healthy. I think you have some guys out there not playing at 100%; it showed a little bit last week. The biggest thing is we have to figure out what to do with the offensive line and something to do with the offensive play calling. I think they need to either expand it or tighten it down and just get to where, ‘You know what, I’m going to do three or four things extremely well. I don’t care if they know they’re coming, we’re just going to have to figure out how to get it done.’
“That’s the Achilles heel right now, is the offensive line. If you can’t block, you can’t pass, you can’t run.”
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What about getting back to an offense similar to the one Ben Roethlisberger had earlier in his career, where he leaned on his defense and the running game?
JH: “I think it’s not Ben though. I think Ben has the knowledge and understanding of a lot of the offense. That’s not the issue. It’s the opposite now (as opposed to earlier in Roethlisberger’s career). A lot of the guys around him are younger. To go into a no-huddle situation and you only have 10, 12 plays, that’s not really conducive to you having success, where before he was used to probably having 40, 50, maybe 60 different calls in a no-huddle situation. The knowledge gap and trying to get these guys up to speed to where he is is another big thing.”
Is it frustrating for you to hear the outside criticism of Roethlisberger and the team from people who may not understand the entire situation?
JH: “To be honest with you, it’s not frustrating because I’ve been used to hearing it for the last 15, 20 years. You’ve got every Monday morning coach saying they should have done this or that, but that’s why you’re on the sideline and you’re probably at work drinking your coffee at your cubicle and you’re not coaching or playing football.”
What do you imagine life is like inside the Steelers’ facility right now?
JH: “It’s on to the next one and trying to correct the things that you did wrong. Monday would have been correction day. Tuesday is clean the slate, and Wednesday you get back to work on the team next week. You’ve got to have a short memory. You’re only as good or as bad as your last game. They have an opportunity to be able to go out there and try and fix that Sunday.”
T.J. Watt has talked about your impact on him during your time together. What have you seen from him in terms of improvements since you played with him?
JH: “I knew T.J. was going to do extreme things. The first year T.J. got there he was playing on the right side. I remember [saying], ‘Why don’t you move T.J. to the left, because T.J. has a move on his left side he can’t replicate on his right.’ It took a year or two for him to do it, but when they moved him to the left you’ve got the numbers you’ve been getting over the last few years. That’s no surprise to me.”
Any advice for Watt about how to stop Aaron Rodgers?
JH: “Smash his face in [and] you’ve got to get to him. That’s it (laughs). If you let him do anything in that pocket; he can get out of the pocket [too]. He can make ridiculous throws on the run. I haven’t seen anybody that can do it the way he does.”
You’ll be eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2023. You had 72 sacks after turning 30 after becoming a first-time starter at age 29. What would making the Hall of Fame mean to you, and what would be one thing you’d tell the voters about your career?
JH: “It would mean a lot to me. … It would mean a lot to me because of something my father had said to me before he passed. I’m not going to share what that is right now. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.
“I think the thing that I would want them to look at is, like you said, the time frame in which I did it. Considering that I didn’t start until I was 29 years old and then the body of work that I put in those six, seven, eight years.”
What is a Hall of Famer to you?
JH: “The impact of that player on the game, and can you tell the history of the game without that person. And that’s what makes me think of someone as a Hall of Famer.”
What motivated you to partner with USAA and their Safe Drive Campaign?
JH: “Everyone’s getting back to traveling. … It’s important to educate people on why they need to drive safely. I’m a defensive driver. I try to make sure I’m looking around; I’m anticipating what other drivers might do so that I can better adjust to things that they may do that isn’t exactly safe. You’ve got a lot of distracted [drivers] that are doing multiple things while they’re trying to drive instead of paying attention to driving.”
Do you have any specific routines you follow before you start your car?
JH: “The first thing is to put your phone in a case and something it can sit in and use the voice activation features that your phone has. That way you’re not even having to touch your phone to communicate with it. Siri is very helpful, especially when you’re on the road trying to get contact or communicate with someone.”
I’m sure setting a good example for your sons is another motivating factor behind joining USAA’s initiative.
JH: “You can say one thing, but your actions are going to speak a whole lot louder than your words. When I jump in my car, the first thing I do is put my seatbelt on, adjust my mirrors, get my phone into its slot, and from there, everything is paying attention to the road and making sure I continue to be a defensive driver. That’s what I am. I’m a defensive player. I’m used to adjusting to other people’s movements.”