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Harrison not playing it safe

In 14th year, he's full steam ahead

FOXBOROUGH -- The highlight was his bone-jarring hit on Titans quarterback Vince Young, a full-steam-ahead "boom!" that registered on the Gillette Stadium Richter scale.

To some who watched last Friday's exhibition game against Tennessee, it was a sign that Rodney Harrison was back to his hard-hitting, relentless ways.

Yet not necessarily to Harrison.

The safety has played the game too long to allow himself to overvalue a play where a blitz was not properly picked up, giving him an unimpeded path to the quarterback. In actuality, it was a gift of sorts, a play most should make, although perhaps not with such an exclamation point.

Entering his 14th NFL season, what Harrison knows is truly important is altogether different. He realizes that when coaches and personnel evaluators assess safeties in their 30s, one of the first questions is, "Can he still run?"

History shows that safeties who lose their wheels generally find themselves in the NFL breakdown lane quickly, especially those who suffer knee injuries in back-to-back years.

In a game that seems to increase in speed each year, a safety with limited range and a lack of explosion is a liability teams can't afford.

So that's why, more so than the sack, there were two especially impressive plays from Harrison last Friday.

The first came when Titans receiver Eric Moulds sprinted down the right sideline late in the first quarter, with cornerback Randall Gay in coverage. Harrison's assignment was over-the-top help on the play, which required him to sprint from the middle of the field, and he arrived at the same time as the ball, using his left leg to plant as he leaped to knock the ball away. Moulds had created separation from Gay, before Harrison arrived to ensure it would be an incompletion.

The effort showed the 34-year-old Harrison still has range.

Then there was a play late in the second quarter, the Titans looking to convert on third and 11. Harrison kept an eye on Young, who fired a low pass toward receiver Courtney Roby near the first-down marker by the right hash marks. Harrison exploded on Young's release and put himself in position to nearly intercept the pass before batting it away.

If his first-quarter sprint to the sideline showed he still has range, this one proved he still has explosion. Harrison has shown similar skills in practice, and it felt good for him to see them in a game.

"It helps build my confidence, you get your hands on some balls, make a few tackles, and just get back to playing football," he said. "Whether you're a young guy or old guy or a guy in between, that always helps."

Harrison's return was one of the top stories of training camp.

When Bill Belichick's team convened July 27, it was a fair question to ask how much could be expected from Harrison. His recent injuries have been well-documented: He tore three ligaments in his left knee in 2005, fractured his right shoulder blade in 2006, and sprained his right medial collateral ligament in the '06 regular-season finale. Of 37 possible games over the last two seasons, he suited up for just 13.

All along, Harrison insisted he had sustained freak injuries that weren't a result of his age. But even he had to wonder how they would affect his ability to play at the high level that has kept him in the league since 1994, which is perhaps why he agreed to reduce his salary from $2.7 million to $2 million in the offseason.

To this point, Harrison feels he's moving the best he has since that painful 2005 day he lay on the Heinz Field turf in Pittsburgh, his knee torn apart. Based on the plays he made against the Titans, and the passionate approach he continues to bring to the practice field, it's hard to argue.

"It doesn't come as a surprise to me; the second year after an injury, you do feel better," he said. "You start doing the things you were able to do a few years ago."

But players who are set to celebrate their 35th birthday Dec. 15 must slow down a bit, right?

"These days, 30 can be like 27," Harrison said. "The medical treatment is better. If you know how to train, how to take the right supplements, how to take care of your body, you can still do it.

"If I didn't think I could run or do the things I can do, I wouldn't be on the field. It would be a waste, and I wouldn't waste the Patriots' time, my teammates' time, or my time."

No waste here. While other safeties in their 30s have had their run come to an end, Harrison just keeps running, showing uncommon range and explosion for a player at this point of his career.

Mike Reiss can be reached at mreiss@globe.com.

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