PHOENIX — The Steelers will open the 2017 season with a 24-year-old and a 38-year-old at outside linebacker.
If you think coach Mike Tomlin is concerned about the old guy — James Harrison — handling the position at an advanced age, guess again.
“We all have to acknowledge that James already has conquered the odds,” Tomlin said Monday at the NFL annual meeting. “He doesn’t fall into convention. His existence doesn’t fall into convention.”
Still, Tomlin likely will make some concessions to Harrison’s age at the outset of the season, much like he did in 2016 when Harrison didn’t start until the 11th game.
Harrison was part of a rotation that included former No. 1 draft pick Jarvis Jones. Then, Jones whiffed on a tackle that allowed Ezekiel Elliott to score the winning touchdown for the Dallas Cowboys in Week 10, and Harrison started the final six meaningful regular-season games and all three in the playoffs.
“We’ll be thoughtful about our approach in a similar way we were thoughtful about our approach a year ago,” Tomlin said.
Harrison played all but one snap down the stretch against Buffalo, Cincinnati and Baltimore. In the postseason, he played 173 of a possible 197 defensive snaps. The Steelers will try to add a pass rusher early in the draft with the intention of him one day replacing Harrison. Arthur Moats and Anthony Chickillo also can ease Harrison’s workload.
“I was comfortable with the way we walked it a year ago,” Tomlin said. “It got to a point where it was ‘go’ time. And he was ready to go. Maybe the way we managed him over the course of the front part of the year allowed that to happen. So the good thing is that it’s nothing new for us, it’s nothing new for (him). We’ll walk that tightrope again.”
— Tomlin will enter 2017 with a new perspective. He has coached teams coming off a Super Bowl win, a Super Bowl loss, an early-round playoff exit and no playoff trip altogether. This time, he’ll bring back a team coming off an AFC championship game loss.
Does that mean Tomlin thinks the Steelers are close?
“I always feel like we’re close,” he said. “You could ask me one of those 8-8 years, and I would have thought we were close. I mean that.”
— For the first time in 11 seasons with the Steelers, Tomlin won’t enter training camp with Lawrence Timmons, his initial draft choice, at inside linebacker. Timmons, of course, signed a two-year, $12 million contract with the Miami Dolphins.
Although the Steelers are moving on with Vince Williams, Tomlin admitted to having sentimental feelings for Timmons.
“These are unique relationships,” he said. “We had a lot of fun over the last decade. … Just because we no longer do formal football business doesn’t mean he and I won’t have a relationship, or he won’t have a relationship with the members of this football team or organization.”
— Asked whether Antonio Brown was portrayed unfairly for his Facebook Live incident during the playoffs, Tomlin said: “Fair or unfair, he created the storm. That’s life, particularly life in our business at this level. It’s something to be dealt with, from his perspective and from our perspective, collectively.”
– Joe Rutter