If you want to argue that James Harrison is reportedly signing with the New England Patriots as a way of getting back at the Pittsburgh Steelers, that's fine.
But the Patriots might have a far different motivation for adding Harrison for the stretch run.
Harrison reportedly has signed with the Patriots, per ESPN's Field Yates, after he was cut by the Steelers. He passed through waivers unclaimed but visited with the Patriots on Tuesday before signing.
Sure, the Harrison revenge angle is fun — and it would fit the pattern of Bill Belichick bringing in hungry veterans who could face a rival team with extra motivation. Many felt that Belchick signing former Jets linebacker Davis Harris fell in line with that, even as Harris has collected dust much of the season on the bench.
But we believe the Patriots not only see Harrison as a helpful addition at a need position, with the team thin at the "edge" spots — the team had to pick up Eric Lee there, is featuring fourth-round rookie Deatrich Wise heavily and has moved linebackers (such as Trevor Reilly, who was released to make room for Harrison on the roster) into that role.
This also could be a signing with the Patriots' first playoff opponent in mind. If the Patriots can clinch the top spot in the AFC, there's a chance they could face the AFC West champion Kansas City Chiefs, the team that stunned them in Week 1. And though the 39-year-old Harrison hasn't played much this season, he has had a history of dominating Chiefs left tackle Eric Fisher.
Harrison's most extended action this season came in Week 7 against the Chiefs, when he logged 18 of his 38 snaps on defense this year. Harrison provided a late sack and a handful of pressures to help the Steelers win and prevent a late Chiefs comeback. And in January, Harrison also had a sack and later drew a key hold against Fisher with a strong pass-rush move at game's end as the Steelers held on for a postseason victory at Arrowhead Stadium.
Prior to the Week 7 game this season, Steelers defensive coordinator Keith Butler said he wanted to feature Harrison in an expanded role because “it’s always good to have James Harrison when you’re playing Kansas City and let the offensive tackle [Fisher] see him.”
Additionally, the Patriots' coaches took note of the Fisher hold and used that play — with the same officiating crew as the Chiefs-Steelers playoff game — to exploit Falcons left tackle Jake Matthews at the end of Super Bowl LI. Surely, the Patriots know all about Harrison, who has faced the Patriots 10 times in the Belichick-Tom Brady era. But that matchup with Fisher had to be fresh in their minds.
Even if Harrison only provides depth, he surely will have fresh legs. He can work into the rotation in Week 17 against the New York Jets, use the playoff bye week to acclimate further and then prepare for the eventual playoff opponent. Heck, the Chiefs might not even be the team the Patriots face; they might not even see the Steelers, robbing him of a chance to show his former team for most of the past 15 years that they made a mistake in releasing him.
But the Patriots are willing to take a chance on a rare impact player who has been toiling at the end of the bench all season with the hope that he could fill a void. And if Harrison is matched up against Fisher, we know how advantageous that could be.
The last time Alex Smith came to Foxborough in the opener, he kicked off the finest season of his career with 28-for-35 passing performance, throwing for 368 yards and four TDs. The Patriots know they can't let him sit back all day and throw deep again if that meeting occurs again.