NFL: Once teammates, Harrison and Roethlisberger back to being rivals
CINCINNATI — Ben Roethlisberger took the snap and tried to stay upright long enough for his receivers to get open on the fourth-and-17 play with time running out.
James Harrison made sure there would be none of Big Ben’s sleight of hand in this one. The linebacker sacked Miami of Ohio’s first-year quarterback, securing Kent State’s 24-20 victory on Nov. 24, 2001.
It was the final play in a sensational game by the senior linebacker, who had a hand in all of the Golden Flashes’ five sacks that day. The win clinched Kent State’s first winning season in 14 years.
That Mid-American Conference game also became a subject of teasing when they got together with the Pittsburgh Steelers and started winning Super Bowls together.
“We always had a lot of arguments about when he was at Kent and I was at Miami,” Roethlisberger said. “He claims that he sacked me like six times in a game, so we’ve had some fun with that.”
So, Harrison’s game wasn’t quite so impressive?
“Of course not,” Roethlisberger said. “He may have gotten me once or twice, but not as many as he thought.”
Tonight, the linebacker and the quarterback will go at it again.
The Steelers (0-1) visit Paul Brown Stadium to play the Bengals (0-1), who are Harrison’s new team.
He left Pittsburgh when they couldn’t agree on a restructured contract, going 300 miles down the Ohio River for a new home.
This one will be a lot more memorable than the last one, which has blurred in their memories.
“I had a halfway decent game, I guess,” Harrison said. “To be honest with you, I just know the numbers. He jokes about it, that he’s the reason I’m in the league.”
There’s a lot more to it, of course. Harrison was the NFL’s defensive player of the year in 2008 because of his knack for making plays. Together, he and Roethlisberger won two Super Bowls in Pittsburgh.
After all that, it’s back to Harrison chasing Roethlisberger around the field with something at stake. The Bengals and the Steelers both had the types of opening losses that made them lose a little sleep and made them eager to get turned around fast.
Cincinnati played well for most of a 24-21 loss in Chicago before self-destructing with turnovers and penalties in the second half. Even with Harrison in for 39 plays, Cincinnati failed to come up with a sack against an offense that used extra blockers. Harrison held up his end of the line.
“He did good,” defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer said. “He lined up in the right place. He was good in the coverage part of things.”
Harrison is still learning how to fit into Cincinnati’s 4-3 defense after playing all those years in Pittsburgh’s 3-4 alignment. Instead of lining up against a tight end, he now has to be more aware of the linemen.
“Still in the process of learning,” he said Friday. “I’ve only been doing it for four months, so I’m still getting a feel for it, where in time it should become second instinct.”
The Steelers had a horrid opener, losing at home to the Titans 16-9. Roethlisberger was sacked five times. Pittsburgh rushed for only 32 yards. Pro Bowl center Maurkice Pouncey was lost for the season with a torn knee ligament.
When Harrison signed with the Bengals, he acknowledged he would have some extra motivation when he played the Steelers for the first time. Now that the game is at hand, he’s been trying to play it down.
Harrison had little to say about the Steelers, which didn’t surprise them at all.
“James is one of those guys that is himself,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “He probably leads by example more than he does verbally. James isn’t always social.”
When his line drew a few laughs on the other end of the line, Tomlin said, “I see you guys know James.”
After a pause, he went on.
“If you do know James, you appreciate that about him,” Tomlin said. “It’s less about what he says and more about what he does.”
That’s what concerns Roethlisberger — what’s he going to do when they have their on-field reunion?
“I’m just thankful that I’ve had so many years of him on my team so I didn’t have to face him for 10-12 years,” the quarterback said.
PHOTO: Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (7) prepares to take a snap during an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans in Pittsburgh, Sunday