Usually, not many Steelers players, if any, are in better shape than James Harrison, their four-time Pro Bowl outside linebacker. Especially this time of year.
But these have not been usual times for Harrison, which he has quickly -- and somewhat agonizingly -- discovered.
Like the rest of the players in the NFL, Harrison did not have an offseason of workouts, practice sessions and minicamps with his teammates because of the lockout. But even if there were offseason training activities, he likely would have been unable to participate after having double back surgery in March.
Harrison has had a tough time getting back in shape after his surgery, and it was apparent in the victory Saturday night against the Atlanta Falcons, when he played longer than in either of the two previous games and was noticeably fatigued.
- Game: Steelers at Carolina Panthers in the final preseason game of 2011, Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, N.C.
- When: 8 p.m. Thursday.
- TV: KDKA.
He often was breathing heavily and had a difficult time pressuring quarterback Matt Ryan.
"He's looking like he was tired out there," said inside linebacker James Farrior, the defensive captain.
"He's not where he wants to be, he'll tell you that," said linebackers coach Keith Butler. "It's not where he usually is before a season. He's usually in better shape than anybody, but the back surgery slowed him down a little."
Harrison has been somewhat limited with the amount of practice time he has received in training camp because coach Mike Tomlin wants to be careful with his comeback from surgery. That, coupled with a lack of his usual offseason workouts, has left Harrison not in the shape to which he is typically accustomed.
"It fatigues you a lot faster, especially when you're trying to deal with an injury, and it really fatigued me out there, I'm not going to lie," Harrison said. "That's something that comes with the territory."
Harrison likely won't play much, if at all, in the final preseason game Thursday night at Carolina. But to help him get back to his usual conditioning level, Butler said Harrison will get a lot of practice time leading up to the regular-season opener in Baltimore.
But, Harrison is not sure that will be the solution.
"You're not going to get the same speed in practice that you are in a game," said Harrison, who is 33 and entering his eighth NFL season. "You're not going to get the same type of collisions. You're using the preseason games as a way to get into shape. You can run all you want at practice, before practice, after practice, but it's not the same as in a game."
Harrison's plight was never better illustrated than on a play in the second quarter in which he tried to chase Ryan out of the pocket. Harrison looked like he was running at half speed as Ryan got to the sideline for an 8-yard gain to the Steelers 2.
Even Farrior, who was covering Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez on the play, noticed how Harrison was laboring.
Butler said Harrison looked like he was "running in mud."
"It's just from not playing enough football," Farrior said. "The only way we can get into football shape is to be out there playing. These preseason games we only play so much. Until you start playing with the pads on and the helmet, it's completely different."
Nobody, though, is more frustrated than Harrison.
"It's more trying to get into game shape, trying to get your back to hold up the same as it did on the first play as it will the last play," said Harrison, the 2008 NFL defensive player of the year. "That's something that will come with time. The longer I'm out there, the more I get reps in games, the better it will get.
"We got a lot more plays this week than we did last week, and I feel about the same as I did last week. I'm not saying that's a good thing, but it was a lot more plays this week than last week and I feel about the same, so it's headed in the right direction."
Harrison and outside partner LaMarr Woodley both registered double-digit sacks each of the past three seasons -- the only players in club history to do so. And Harrison has been a fast starter, registering 24 of his 36 1/2 sacks since 2008 in the first eight games of the season.
"I anticipate playing and eventually, yeah, I'll get to full strength," Harrison said. "But, when that will be, I don't know."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published August 31, 2011 4:00 AM