By Joe Kay | Associated Press
CINCINNATI -- Linebacker James Harrison is the latest Bengals player trying to get healthy in time for the next game. And this one means a little more to the former Pittsburgh Steelers star.
Harrison, a former star at Coventry High School and Kent State University, was one of three Bengals who missed practice Thursday because of illness. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis missed a second day of practice, and linebacker Vontaze Burfict also was held out.
It'll be a homecoming for Harrison when the Bengals (9-4) play in Pittsburgh (5-8) on Sunday night. He left Pittsburgh after he and the Steelers failed to agree on a restructured contract, moving down the Ohio River to an AFC North rival.
"I am pretty sure there will be some boos and probably cheering going on," Burfict said. "I am pretty sure I'm going to be walking out with him so I can absorb that.
"It's going to be great for him to go back there and be able to play against his crowd. I am kind of excited to see if there is going to be more cheers or boos."
Probably more of the latter, now that he's playing for a team that has leapfrogged the Steelers in several ways.
The Bengals went to Pittsburgh last December and won 13-10, clinching a wild-card berth while knocking the Steelers out of contention. Harrison, who helped the Steelers win two Super Bowls, left after last season because of the contract impasse.
During the second week of this season, he didn't have a tackle or a sack when the Bengals beat the Steelers 20-10 in a Monday night game at Paul Brown Stadium. His transition to a new defense took some time, but he's come on strong lately.
Harrison had 14 plays or fewer in five of the first seven games. He's been in for 55, 19 and 52 plays in each of the last three games, his role growing as the Bengals deal with injuries.
Even when he had a limited role, teammates noticed his intensity in practice.
"I think it helps guys realize you don't need all the antics, you don't need all the craziness, just get out there and make a play and play the game with a passion and intensity to be good at it, and that's what he does really well," offensive lineman Andrew Whitworth said.
Coach Marvin Lewis thinks that Harrison's edgy play, which has drawn many penalties and fines over the years, has influenced some of the younger players on a defense currently ranked eighth.
"Guys like that eventually end up in the Pro Football Hall of Fame," Lewis said. "That's what he's done. You can't take away from that, and being a big bully along the way with it. A very respectful bully, and that's the best part of him."
A respectful bully?
"Yeah, he's going to be gruff about everything he can be," Lewis said. "That's his fun. We spend a lot of time together and guys have to have fun. That's his fun, to always be on edge, to keep people on edge."
Steelers safety Ryan Clark said Harrison's gruff persona is more for show -- "nobody really wants to be as big of a jerk as James can be sometimes" -- but the way he plays can be inspiring.
"His edge on the field, especially when he was here, it couldn't be contagious because it couldn't be matched," Clark said.
Clark got to know another side to Harrison in Pittsburgh -- "he's actually really a nice dude" -- and hopes the fans at Heinz Field show him some appreciation Sunday.
"James did a lot of great things here," Clark said. "A lot of those No. 1 defenses were in large part to the efforts of James Harrison.
"So hopefully they give him the reception he deserves."
Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau agrees.
"Well, I know what he'll get from me," LeBeau said. "He's one of the great Steeler defenders. I'm not going to wish him success in the game, but I do love the man."