Niner of the Week

Cornerback Walt Harris is SFI's Niner of the Week for his performance in the 49ers' 34-20 victory over the Oakland Raiders.

Sunday standout: Harris had the first three-interception game of his career at any level of competition, sparking a San Francisco defensive effort that included five second-half takeaways that helped erase Oakland's 13-7 halftime lead. After the 49ers had gone ahead 14-13 early in the third period, the 11th-year veteran drifted back in coverage to pick off Oakland quarterback Andrew Walter's pass in the end zone midway through the third quarter to record San Francisco's first interception of the season. In addition to thwarting a drive that could have given the lead back to Oakland, that pick opened the floodgates for the 49ers to get three more before the game was over, including Harris' two interceptions of backup quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo in the game's final 11 minutes. The first of those picks came on the first play after the 49ers had gone ahead 31-13 on Melvin Oliver's 12-yard touchdown return of a botched lateral. Tuiasosopo's first-down pass was tipped by linebacker Manny Lawson, and Harris swooped in front of receiver Ronald Curry to give the 49ers the ball back at the Oakland 30-yard line. Harris completed his hat trick by out-jumping Randy Moss on the right sideline to pull down another Tuiasosopo pass at the Oakland 42-yard line with 2:03 remaining. The 49ers turned Harris' first interception into an 80-yard touchdown drive that put them ahead 21-13 and continued a run of 24 unanswered San Francisco points. Harris also was fourth on the team with four tackles, two of them coming on Oakland's first offensive drive and another after Harris chased down Curry on a 39-yard reception after safety Mike Adams had slipped and failed to make the play. Harris' most pivotal tackle came on the second play after halftime when he came up to make an open-field tackle on halfback LaMont Jordan, stopping Jordan for a two-yard gain after he'd taken a short pass in the left flat from Walter. That forced Oakland into a third-and-7, and the Raiders punted after failing to convert on the next play. That punt was blocked by Lawson, and the 49ers were on their way to taking control of the game. For his performance, Harris earned honorable mention status for NFC Defensive Player of the Week.

Season to date: With three interceptions, Harris is tied for second among the NFL leaders in that category with Chicago's Ricky Manning and Atlanta's DeAngelo Hall. Each trails Jacksonville's Rashean Mathis, who has four interceptions. Through five games, Harris has been San Francisco's most effective player on defense and arguably the team's defensive MVP. Harris made his impact felt right away in San Francisco's Sept. 10 season opener at Arizona - Harris' debut with the team - when he recorded six tackles, knocked away two passes and had just the second sack of his career. On that play, Harris hit quarterback Kurt Warner on a blitz, stripped the ball, and then recovered the fumble deep in Arizona territory to set up a San Francisco touchdown. The next week against St. Louis, Harris led the 49ers with eight tackles and made several outstanding plays in coverage to spark San Francisco to its first victory of the season. He knocked away three passes - including a deep bomb to Torry Holt early in the fourth quarter - as the 49ers limited an explosive St. Louis offense to just 147 net yards passing. Harris also showed he still has plenty of pop left in his pads when he leveled Joe Klopfenstein on a completion down the left side that had the rookie tight end shaking out the ringing in his ears as he picked himself up slowly off the turf. Harris has had at least four tackles in each of San Francisco's five games this season, and he also leads the team with eight passes defensed and a two forced fumbles.

Need to note: Harris' three-pick game came after his San Francisco teammates earlier in the week had voted him as one of two defensive captains to represent the 49ers the remainder of the season. Harris and defensive end Bryant Young received the most votes among San Francisco's defensive players. Harris became the fourth player in 49ers history to have three interceptions in a game, following Ronnie Heard (2002), Rod Woodson (1997), Eric Wright (1983) and Anthony Leonard (1978). He's second in the team record book only to Dave Baker, who had four interceptions in a 1960 game against the Los Angeles Rams. Harris' previous career high in a game was two interceptions, a feat he accomplished in 2002 while with the Indianapolis Colts and also in 1997 during his second season with the Chicago Bears. Harris was Chicago's first-round draft pick in 1996 - the 13th player selected overall - and played his first six seasons with the Bears before spending two years each with the Colts and Washington Redskins. Now with his fourth NFL team, Harris has started 137 of the 159 games in which he has appeared, including playoffs, and now has 23 career interceptions.

Harris says: "I tried to take the initiative of making a play, because from that point, things kind of had a domino effect. On the first (interception), I don't think (Walter) really saw me. I think he had a certain read and had in his mind who he was going to throw the ball to. I was just kind of back there, saw him throw it and went up and made the play. The next play was a tipped ball. I think I would have broken up the play if it wasn't a tipped ball. But I looked back, and the ball was in the air, and it was just right there and was more an easy catch than anything. The last one was a scramble at the end of the game; he was trying to throw the ball over my head to Randy and I just kind of waited there and jumped up and caught it. You get one, they always come. Once you get that first pick and get that monkey off your back, things begin to roll and that's what pretty much happened. When you get one, they always come in bunches."

Coach Mike Nolan says: "He's a pro every call, a player who studies and does all the little things and is very helpful to the young guys. He's a professional. Besides that, he's just gifted with talent and he just rides his career off with that. He's a guy that's got gifted talent, but he's also a guy with all the years of study. So he's a great example to the younger guys. He's not a vocal guy; I mean, it's not like he doesn't' say anything, because he talks very quietly to the guys to help them, but he's not a guy to jump up and down with what he's saying. So first off, he's a player. Second off, he was a great addition for our younger guys to set the example for what kind of guys we want it to look. Great citizen, great character, very commendable about both. He's been a great addition for our defense, without question."

Looking forward: As he continues his consistently strong play, Harris is seeing fewer passes come his way as opponents opt to test other areas of San Francisco's secondary. That's a trend that is likely to continue if Harris can keep up his playmaking ways. But like all NFL cornerbacks, Harris will be tested, and like he has been at every juncture this season, Harris says he'll be ready. "I really wanted to come in here and not just be a leader, but try to make a difference as a player on the field," Harris said. "I want to be out there to make plays and kind of spark the defense so guys can make plays and have fun out there. I'm excited about being here, and I think this is just a start."

ALSO CONSIDERED: RB Frank Gore (career-high 134 yards rushing on 27 carries, three receptions for 38 yards, earned NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors); QB Alex Smith (15 of 19 passing for 165 yards, career-high three touchdown passes, career-high 120.5 quarterback rating); LB Manny Lawson (four tackles, one tipped pass, one quarterback hit, blocked punt that led to 49ers' go-ahead touchdown, earned honorable mention status for NFC Special Teams Player of the Week); WR Arnaz Battle (team-high four receptions for 37 yards, career-high two touchdown catches).

2006 NOTW LIST: Week 1: RB Frank Gore. Week 2: WR Antonio Bryant. Week 3: QB Alex Smith. Week 4: DE Marques Douglas. Week 5: CB Walt Harris.


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