- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 4, 2014

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The game ball sat innocently in the gold-painted locker, an oblong tribute to a career revival no one saw coming.

Not even James Harrison.

Two months ago, the Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker was retired, weary from more than a decade as one of the NFL’s most intimidating players.

Now the 36-year-old’s unlikely renaissance has his suddenly streaking team poised to make a run.

From the couch to a fixture in the Baltimore Ravens backfield in all of eight weeks. Hardly the play of a guy who’s lost a step, even if the five-time Pro Bowler is trying to downplay his re-emergence as the teeth of a pass rush that has rediscovered its inner snarling self.

“As old and slow as I am, (God) is driving the bus,” Harrison said.

Whoever is at the controls, the results feel awfully familiar. A half-decade removed from his prime in his first go-round in Pittsburgh, Harrison is back to “doing James Harrison-type things” as coach Mike Tomlin put it.

Namely, creating havoc.

A year after a quiet season in Cincinnati that seemed anticlimactic and sort of odd, Harrison is validating his decision to come back for a final go-round with the Steelers one foray across the line of scrimmage at a time.

He has four sacks in his past two games, including a pair in a surprisingly easy 43-23 victory over the Ravens on Sunday night that pushed the Steelers to 6-3 heading into a trip to New York to face the struggling Jets.

The player who served as a largely ineffective pass-rushing specialist with the Bengals in 2013 has multiple sacks in consecutive games for the first time since 2009, when he was one of the most dominant defensive presences in the league.

That’s a lifetime ago by NFL standards, though Pittsburgh cornerback William Gay dismisses the notion that the expiration date on Harrison’s effectiveness has long since passed.

“That’s crazy how we use the words ‘old man,’” Gay said. “(Harrison) is not old. He’s the strongest person in the league. I’ll put any type of money on that.”

The proof is in Harrison’s busy Twitter and Instagram accounts. Hours after beating the Ravens, Harrison was posting video of himself lifting the equivalent of a small pickup truck.

On Tuesday, he did push-ups with 303-pound Steelers center Maurkice Pouncey lounging on his back.

It’s that diligent commitment to his body that has enabled Harrison to say yes when the Steelers called him in mid-September after linebackers Jarvis Jones and Ryan Shazier went down with injuries.

Though Harrison had announced his retirement two weeks earlier during a brief ceremony at the team headquarters, he couldn’t resist when his phone started ringing with old friends asking if he wanted to get the gang back together for one last run.

Harrison insists he did nothing “football specific” during the nine months he was away from the game.

“I hadn’t really planned on playing again,” he said. “Everything I did was just working out and staying in shape because I like to work out, that’s about it.”

The first few weeks were unkind. Though he won’t get specific, Harrison allows he’d put on weight during his extended offseason. He looked like a player whose best days were in the rearview mirror as the Steelers eased him back into the lineup.

He was a nonfactor for a month, his No. 92 largely invisible as Pittsburgh’s defense struggled to generate any of the chaos that has long been its trademark.

There was no panic. Instead Harrison quietly went about his business, working his way back into “football shape” and mentoring younger teammates such as Arthur Moats. Harrison remained confident if the Steelers could find a way to play from ahead, the menace would return.

The first glimmer came against the Colts. Up 25 points in the second quarter, defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau started to get exotic with his blitz packages. The results were two Harrison sacks of Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck.

“I felt like we were meshing a little better,” Harrison said. “We got a lead and when you’ve got a lead you’ve got the opportunity to pin your ears back and take off.”

At the moment, Harrison is soaring. He put together perhaps his finest game this decade against the Ravens. He sacked the Ravens’ Joe Flacco in the first quarter to cut short a Baltimore drive.

He was chasing down Flacco in the second quarter, forcing Flacco into an inexplicable throw to nowhere that Jason Worilds picked off and returned 30 yards to set up the second of Ben Roethlisberger’s six touchdown passes.

While he left briefly with a sprained MCL in his right knee, Harrison returned to another sack in the third quarter, grabbing Flacco by the ankle to force the Ravens to punt with the game still in doubt. Though Flacco said he “can’t tell who it is out there,” his coach certainly noticed.

“I thought 92 looked really good,” John Harbaugh said.

So did the rest of the Pittsburgh defense. It’s not a coincidence, even as Harrison stresses plenty of work remains. And no matter how the next seven games go, this is his final go-round.

“Obviously everything happens for a reason,” he said. “I guess this is the road I was supposed to take.”


Online: www.pro32.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_NFL

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