By WILL GRAVES
PITTSBURGH — The battles were frequent and ultimately, Marcus Gilbert admits, at times a little one-sided.
Then again, they were supposed to be, right?
During Gilbert’s first training camp with the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2011, the offensive tackle found himself at the line of scrimmage with linebacker James Harrison standing a couple of feet away, all snarl and menace and fury.
Over and over they would go at it, the five-time Pro Bowl standout looking to teach the second-round pick a lesson, the massive kid from Florida trying to hold off a force of nature.
“He’s one of the guys I respect the most in the game of football because of what he brings to the table,” Gilbert said of Harrison. “He’s aggressive. He’s smart. He’s physical.”
And now, he’s a member of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Harrison and Gilbert will clash again Monday for more than personal pride. Harrison, 35, is the proven veteran the Bengals hope will help make their defense Super Bowl material. Gilbert is the starting on a unit trying to recover from the gut punch of losing center Maurkice Pouncey for the year.
Asked what it will be like to see Harrison’s familiar No. 92 in a bizarre combination of white, orange and black and Gilbert just smiles.
“I just carry over everything I took from playing against him and carry it over until Monday,” Gilbert said. “I’m just going to try and get after him.”
Harrison wouldn’t have it any other way. Though he called facing the Steelers “another game on the schedule,” his old teammates know better. Spend enough time around Harrison and there’s little doubt he’s one of the more prideful in the game.
That ruthless drive fueled Harrison’s rise from undrafted free agent to 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Let go by Pittsburgh, Harrison is looking to prove himself. Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, who called Harrison “one of the all-time Steeler greats” figures it is unwise to bet against his old friend.
“He’s faced adversity at every stage of his career and he’s overcome it,” Polamalu said.
Harrison allowed the Bengals have “picked his brain” about the Steelers while Polamalu joked when the two spoke recently “he gave me some good offensive plays. I gave him some more good offensive plays.”
There will be handshakes and hugs. But that ends at kickoff.
“I’m sure he’ll have his black visor on so we can’t see his face too well,” quarterback Ben Roethlisberger said.
Harrison’s No. 92, however, will be unmistakable. Though he’s still getting the hang of Cincinnati’s 4-3 defense — a marked departure from the 3-4 he played in Pittsburgh — Harrison remains one of the most intimidating players in the league even to the guy chosen to eventually replaced him.
Pittsburgh drafted linebacker Jarvis Jones with the 17th overall pick believing the kid who led the NCAA in sacks last season can eventually do the same in black and gold. Even if he does, Jones allows it will look decidedly different than the unique chaos Harrison once created.
At 6-foot-2, Jones has two inches on Harrison. He’s longer. He’s leaner and even Jones admits he’s not the same kind of “vicious.”
“I try to be vicious all the time,” Jones said. “His is just gonna look better than mine because he’s got muscles on muscles packed on.”
That viciousness only came out in small bursts during Cincinnati’s loss to Chicago. Harrison was credited with just one tackle, though he doesn’t need to light up the stat sheet to have an impact. Bengals coach Marvin Lewis called Harrison “a role model.”
“They know James never forgot how he got to the NFL,” Lewis said. “He still plays with that chip.”
A chip that might be a little bit larger than usual Monday.
Harrison was released when he refused to take a significant pay cut. He brushes off reports he took even less money to play in Cincinnati. The Bengals allowed him to stay close to his offseason home in central Ohio. The fact he plays his old team twice a year isn’t relevant.
Except, of course, for the part where it will be plenty relevant Monday.
“When he’s on the other sidelines,” Polamalu said, “it’s going to be weird, funny and awkward.”
Kind of like Harrison himself.
NOTES: Offensive coordinator Todd Haley said Kelvin Beachum and Fernando Velasco are both getting time at center this week. … TE Heath Miller (knee) went through a full practice for a second straight day. … K Shaun Suisham is dealing with a grade 1 hamstring strain and hinted he may sit. The Steelers signed veteran Shayne Graham as insurance this week.
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