In a season that’s already featured a miraculous Hail Mary and a game-ending overtime safety; we witnessed another rarity last Sunday: A game-changing touchdown that didn’t count.
James Harrison’s first quarter interception when the Bengals trailed the Browns 13-0 and were being showered by boos, did lead to a 25-yard touchdown pass from Andy Dalton to Jermaine Gresham. But Harrison’s bulldozing 20-yard TD return that was nullified by a penalty was the spark that helped turn the game around.
“It was funny because I had just told the defense, ‘Hey, we need y’all to do something.’” said tight end Alex Smith. “Big James stepped up right on time.”
“It got us going and I thought that was huge,” said Marvin Lewis. “I just think the energy of James’ return – even though it got called back – that was like an Earl Campbell run. That was an impressive physical play.”
Harrison didn’t only resemble Earl Campbell – he evoked memories of himself in Super Bowl XLIII when he intercepted Arizona’s Kurt Warner at the goal line and broke or avoided six clear tackle opportunities by the Cardinals on a record-setting 100 yard return.
That year, Harrison was the NFL Defensive Player of the Year after finishing with 16 sacks and 7 forced fumbles. As the “Sam” linebacker in the Bengals 4-3 defense, Harrison doesn’t have the opportunity to post such gaudy statistics, but he is having a productive season. ProFootballFocus.com has Harrison ranked fourth among 4-3 outside linebackers, and in the victory over Cleveland, James played a season-high 55 defensive snaps.
“They’re starting to put me in a lot of different positions,” said Harrison. “I’m getting extra roles in the defense just from guys that have ended up going down. I have to expand my role. I just got an opportunity to go out there and play a little more than I had in some previous games.”
The linebacker one spot ahead of Harrison in the ProFootballFocus.com ratings is Vontaze Burfict. Following his 18 tackle, 1 forced fumble, 1 fumble recovery touchdown performance vs. Cleveland, I asked Marvin Lewis if Burfict has a chance to rank among the best linebackers he’s ever coached – a list that includes Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Greg Lloyd, and Kevin Greene.
“He does – he really does,” Marvin told me. “I’ve said that from the very first practice that he stepped on the field for us in the rookie camp and he’s not disappointed me. We just can’t have the penalties. He gets a foolish personal foul penalty that we can’t have. Penalties that come within the play and so-forth; we’re going to keep coaching them to play within the rules, but this other stuff we can’t do. We’re not the WWF and we don’t get to retaliate. This is the National Football League and we’ve got to respect that and do it the right way.”
If not for penalties, Burfict would move past Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David and Denver’s Von Miller into the number one spot among 4-3 outside linebackers in the ProFootballFocus.com ratings.
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