PHOENIX -- When he took over as head coach in 2007, Mike Tomlin inherited an immediate crisis in his defense: How to replace Joey Porter, one of the team's all-time sack leaders and inspirational players.
Porter, the right outside linebacker, had just turned 30 and was coming off a season in which he had seven sacks and two interceptions, one for a touchdown, in 14 games. But, because of a nagging knee injury, he was not the same player that the Steelers saw during their 2005 run to the Super Bowl.
Rather than pay him the $6 million he was scheduled to make in 2007, the Steelers released him
But, as Tomlin soon discovered, Porter's loss was the Steelers' gain.
"There was a guy that came in my office that was ready to prove that he was capable of [playing] 900 to 1,000 snaps a year," Tomlin said. "His name was James Harrison. I think if we all knew what James Harrison was capable of, he would have played more than he did before 2007."
Nobody is expecting Jason Worilds to be James Harrison. But, ready or not, he is the heir apparent at right outside linebacker to Harrison, a five-time Pro Bowl selection who was released two weeks with two years remaining on his contract.
Worilds was a No. 2 draft choice in 2009 who has started 10 games and has 10 sacks in three seasons. But Harrison's stats were even more nondescript when he replaced Porter as the starter at right outside linebacker -- eight starts and four sacks in three seasons.
"I believe that Jason Worilds is chomping at the bit to prove he is capable of being that," Tomlin said during a break at the NFL owners meetings that began Monday at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa. "We will see what Worilds is capable of doing."
Then he added with a laugh, "No pressure."
Tomlin's point, though, is well-founded: You never know what can happen when a player gets to emerge from a considerable shadow. And Harrison certainly cast that in his six years as a dominating presence in the Steelers defense.
"But that's what this is," Tomlin said. "That's what change does. It provides opportunities for guys to ascend and take advantage of opportunities, and to carve out a niche or a name for themselves. I think that these competitors are challenged by that or encouraged by those opportunities that change presents."
"You never know," team president Art Rooney II said on Monday, standing on the lawn outside the meeting area. "Over the years, we certainly have had players that, when they were given their opportunity, like James did, they stepped forward and really did a great job. Jason has certainly shown flashes of being a great pass rusher. So he'll certainly have an opportunity to show what he can do this year."
Harrison was coming off a season in which he missed all offseason training activities and the entire training camp because of a nagging knee injury that eventually required surgery. After sitting out the first two games of the regular season, he looked like a shadow of his old self when he returned -- failing to generate any pressure on the quarterback and struggling to cover tight ends and running backs in pass situations because of his knee.
Harrison improved as the season went along and finished tied for the team lead with six sacks in 14 games. But Harrison will be 35 in May -- five years older than Porter when he was released by the Steelers in 2006 -- and was scheduled to make $6.56 million in 2013. When he refused to take a pay cut, the Steelers released him.
"James is a special guy and was a special player for us," Tomlin said. "It is a part of the business. We may never replace James but we will have an opportunity to strengthen ourselves in other areas. I think that's what you look at sometimes when you look at some of the things that have happened from a change standpoint.
"No, we won't be able to replace James. No, we won't be able to replace Mike Wallace. Those guys are who they are. But those voids will provide opportunities for us to strengthen ourselves in those areas and in others, and collectively maybe even make us stronger. I think that's an approach I always take to change. That's why I view it somewhat optimistically."
NOTE -- The NFL settled a lawsuit with 16 retired players who challenged the improper use of their images in NFL films and other footage. The league will contribute $42 million over an eight-year period to a newly established fund that will be administered by a group of retired players. "We've got more litigation going on than we would like and to get one piece of this out of the way is a big thing," Rooney said. "To have a group of retired players come in and express their appreciation and their interest in working together, that's an important piece of the puzzle of what we're going to get done going forward."
Gerry Dulac: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @gerrydulac. First Published March 19, 2013 4:00 AM