New England

Young Patriots Look Forward to Learning From Harrison

Tom Brady is still the oldest member of the New England Patriots, but the gap between him and the next oldest guy in the locker room just got a lot smaller.

Linebacker James Harrison, 39, came to Foxboro for a visit yesterday after his surprising release from Pittsburgh over the weekend. The Patriots didn’t let him get away, signing the 15-year veteran to a one-year contract to help with a pass rush that’s been up-and-down all year long.

Bill Belichick was his usual coy self at his morning press conference when asked a number of questions about Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

“How would you describe James Harrison’s playing style?” asked one reporter.

“He’s played outside linebacker for the Steelers,” Belichick said. “We’ll see how it goes.”

“What are your thoughts on his career?” tried another.

“Good,” Belichick said.

And so it went.

Harrison played in only five games for Pittsburgh this season, registering a single sack in 40 total snaps.

Even at his advanced age, Harrison’s addition comes with virtually no risk based on his pass rush acumen alone. The Patriots have 38 sacks as a team, tied for 12th most in the NFL through Week 16. The unit has looked great in some weeks and virtually nonexistent in others, the result of personnel changes and shortcomings as far back as the offseason.

The respective absences of Rob Ninkovich and Kony Ealy from the first day of training camp in July wound up foreshadowing the instability along the edge. Ninkovich ultimately decided to retire, while Ealy proved to be a poor fit and was released before the end of the preseason. For what it’s worth, Ealy has recorded just one sack in 15 games with the Jets.

Injuries to Dont’a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy – both of whom were playing out of position in the first place, thus weakening the middle – have further tested New England’s depth. Aside from the rock-solid presence of Trey Flowers (6.5 sacks), it’s been a revolving door along the edge. Deatrich Wise Jr. has also shown some semblance of consistency, particularly early and now again late in the season. The promising rookie has five sacks total on the season.

Flowers and Wise Jr. sounded excited to not only begin working with Harrison, but also to learn from him.

“Everything, really,” Flowers said when asked what he could learn from Pittsburgh’s all-time sacks leader. “He’s been doing it a long time. He’s a very physical player. Obviously, in the weight room, being able to keep his body strong and things like that. A whole lot, whether it’s stopping the run, pass rushing, things like that. Anytime you get a vet that’s been doing it a long time, you learn a lot from him.”

“Anything he tells me, I’ll be all ears,” Wise Jr. said. “And if he has any knowledge to give to me, I’m definitely going to listen to it and learn from it.”

Harrison went undrafted out of Kent State University in 2002, a draft class from which only three players are still active: defensive ends Julius Peppers and Dwight Freeney and quarterback Josh McCown. Save for a one-year stint with the Bengals in 2013, he’s played his entire career in the Steel City.

No Place Like Home

Hard as it is to believe, the Patriots haven’t won a true road playoff game (excluding neutral-site Super Bowls) since after the 2006 season. Part of that is a testament to how great New England has been in the regular season, creating so few scenarios where the team has needed to go on the road to punch their ticket to the Super Bowl.

But since Troy Brown stripped Marlon McCree to help the Patriots pull an upset over the San Diego Chargers in the ’06 divisional round, New England is 0-for-3 on the road in the postseason – all losses coming in the AFC Championship Game to team’s quarterbacked by Peyton Manning.

With a win (or Pittsburgh loss) on Sunday, the Patriots will clinch home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

“For us, the biggest thing is playing well,” Devin McCourty said when asked about clinching home-field advantage. “It’s that time of the year where you don’t want to go out there and not be prepared.”

“Right now, we’re talking about the Jets, and the Jets only,” Deatrich Wise Jr. said.

Malcolm Mitchell Returns to Practice

Another weapon may be ready to rejoin Tom Brady’s arsenal.

Malcolm Mitchell, who has not played yet this season, practiced this morning for the first time since prior to the start of the regular season. He was placed on injured reserve on Sept. 7 with a knee problem, the same day as New England’s season opener, with a designation to return. The Patriots now have 21 days to activate Mitchell, a window which extends through the Wednesday prior to the AFC Championship Game.

By almost any metric, Mitchell had the most productive rookie season for a wide receiver in New England last year since Deion Branch in 2002. Mitchell caught 32 passes for 401 yards and four touchdowns in the regular season and came up big in Super Bowl LI, catching six passes for 70 yards to help the Patriots to the title.

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