James Harrison is bringing a healed body and his old No. 92 with him down the Ohio River. Next goal: Get a Bengals ring to go with all that Steelers bling.
The former Pittsburgh linebacker signed a two-year contract Tuesday, completing the deal he agreed to four days earlier. He's already got his uniform No. 92 reserved — defensive end Jamaal Anderson agreed to give it up — and his plans set. He'll continue to live in football-crazed Pittsburgh while trying to get the rival Bengals deep into the playoffs.
He's not sure how that's going to feel.
"I wouldn't say it feels strange," Harrison said Tuesday on a conference call from Arizona. "I guess when that time comes, I'll have a better understanding or feeling of exactly what it will be then. I'm just happy to be able to continue playing."
The five-time Pro Bowl player had to find a new team when he couldn't agree on a restructured contract with the Steelers, who needed to get under the salary cap. The 2008 Defensive Player of the Year wound up going downriver to play for an AFC North rival, one that knocked Pittsburgh out of the playoff chase in a head-to-head game last December at Heinz Field.
"There was no significance in staying in the AFC North," Harrison said. "My thing was I wanted to play with a team that was competitive and had a chance of winning a Super Bowl. I felt like (defending champion) Baltimore and Cincinnati were those teams.
"The second thing I wanted was to stay close to home. I currently live in Pittsburgh and that's where I'm going to reside. I really didn't want to have to go farther away than I had to."
The 34-year-old linebacker said he left the Steelers with no hard feelings. He realized once negotiations started that the sides weren't going to reach a deal that satisfied Pittsburgh's plans to get under the salary cap.
"I don't have a chip on my shoulder against the Steelers," Harrison said. "I don't hate the Steelers. All the things they're saying, that the media is blowing it up to be ... am I disappointed? Yeah, I'm disappointed. But when the negotiations first started, I basically knew the situation was going to be what it was going to be.
"I wish them the best, except for when we play. And I'm assuming they wish me the same, except when we play them."
It won't be long. The Bengals will play their first home game against the Steelers on a Monday night next season, providing a national stage for the linebacker's reunion with his former team.
The Bengals have gone to two Super Bowls and lost both to San Francisco. They haven't won a playoff game since 1990. Cincinnati made the playoffs each of the last two seasons as a wild card, but lost its opening postseason game to Houston both times.
The defense ranked sixth in the NFL in yards allowed last season and returns most of the unit intact. Linebacker was a main area of concern.
"With James, that was a big addition to us," coach Marvin Lewis said on Tuesday. "It kind of revved us from where we were a year ago, a step up from where we were a year ago in an area where I hoped to try to improve in some way or another. So we were able to do that."
Asked what he thinks is the missing piece to the Bengals, Harrison thought for a few seconds.
"I don't think that it's a piece," he said. "It's more consistency. I'll leave it at that."
Harrison said he's been working out in Arizona and feels healthier than he has in the past few years. He missed time in training camp and the first three games last season with a knee injury, but finished with six sacks — tied for the team lead. The Steelers finished No. 1 in defense for the fourth time since Harrison became a starter in their 3-4 alignment.
Harrison helped the Steelers win the Super Bowl in 2006 and another in 2009 by returning Kurt Warner's pass 100 yards for a touchdown at the end of the first half of a 27-23 victory.
The Bengals were impressed when he visited Cincinnati for a workout.
"He came in here and had a great visit and kind of bared his soul on things to us," Lewis said. "I think it showed really the kind of person he was for us. That was great. (He) worked on the field for us, which not a lot of guys at this point in his career would be willing to do that."
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