Chris Harris' reputation as a hard-hitting, physical safety has never been questioned.
Not in his first tour of duty with the Bears (2005-06), the next three years with the Panthers or in his return this season to the Bears. But Harris has never been known as a ball hawk, the kind of guy who was a threat to pick off a lot of passes. Harris has always been able to blow up a receiver or runner with a big hit, but now he's become the kind of player who can also make plays on the ball.
Harris' interception in the final minute Sunday against the Jets, which clinched the Bears' 38-34 victory, was his fifth of the season, tops on the team and a personal best. He also had game highs of 11 tackles and 10 solos and recovered a fumble. Led by Harris, the Bears already have 20 interceptions, seven more than they did all of last season.
Harris has had plenty of highlight-film hits since the Bears drafted him in the sixth round in 2005 out of Louisiana-Monroe. But in five previous seasons, he had 10 interceptions and never more than three in a season.
Former Pro Bowl cornerback Gill Byrd, the Bears' assistant defensive backs/safeties coach, has helped convince Harris that a takeaway can be even more valuable than a knockout hit.
"We would always have these debates, especially when I was here my first couple years," Harris said. "Back then he would say, 'So, which would you rather take, a hard hit or an [interception]?'"
Back then, that was a no-brainer for Harris.
"I [would say], 'A hard hit, of course,'" he said. "Now, I'm kind of feeling myself change. He's kind of gotten me out of that frame of thinking. It's all about the ball. That's kind of our motto in the secondary room. Ball first, and then the hit. If you see you can't get the pick, then you lay a hit on the receiver. That's going for our whole secondary. [Defensive coordinator] Rod Marinelli constantly preaches when the ball's in the air: Once it's out of the quarterback's hand, it's a free ball. So go get it."
But don't let the ball or the receiver get behind you. That's the other side of the equation. And especially in the Bears' Cover-2 scheme, keeping everything in front of the safeties is key.
"The life of a safety's tough," Harris said. "I don't think people realize how tough it is. If you play on the defensive line, a mistake you make gets covered up by a linebacker. If you play linebacker, mistakes you make get covered up by the secondary. If you're a safety or a corner, the mistakes you make get covered up by the end zone."
The Bears' secondary hasn't had to pass the buck on its mistakes very often this season. Opponents have scored just 13 touchdowns through the air against the Bears, while Jay Cutler has tossed 23 touchdown passes.
Even when the worst occurs – the Patriots game comes to mind – Harris said it's best for players at his position to have selective amnesia.
"You have to be able to put plays behind you," he said. "Bad things do happen. Guys are human, and they're going to make mistakes. The other team gets paid to make plays, so they're going to make plays, but you have to have a short memory to be a defensive back, especially in the NFL. Because if you don't, one play can have a snowball effect. It's a tough job to do in the NFL, but somebody's got to do it, right?"
NOTES AND QUOTES
In 2006, the Bears had also clinched the playoffs. They rested some starters and lost their regular-season finale 26-7 to the Packers. They struggled in their playoff opener but defeated the Seahawks 27-24 in overtime at Soldier Field and went on to Super Bowl XLI.
Coach Lovie Smith was asked if he would use that experience to change anything this time around.
"I think we kept the pedal down then," Smith said. "In '05, we lost. In '06, we went through the same schedule, and we won. Either way, you can get the job done. I think the '06 team was better, and that's why we won. I think it still comes down to that. I don't think if guys get 20 less plays in a game that they stop playing good football. We're in a position where, if we didn't play our guys in an entire game, I don't think that has a whole lot to do with what would happen that next week." ...
A loss by the Eagles on Tuesday to the Vikings, though unlikely, would gift-wrap the No. 2 seed for the Bears, regardless of the outcome of Sunday's Packers game. That could change how much Bears starters play in Green Bay.
"That's a long ways off," Smith said. "Right now, we plan on playing our guys the entire game."
Running back Matt Forte, who has 978 rushing yards this season, is fine with that.
"I want to play because I've got 20-some yards to get 1,000," Forte said. "I want to get that. I think the guys will want to play just because it's against the Packers." ...
Knowing that they will have at least one home playoff game made Smith stress to his team the importance of improving their lackluster 4-3 record at Soldier Field heading into Sunday's game against the Jets.
"Lovie made that clear in the meeting before the game," Harris said. "[He said], 'Guys, you've done everything I've asked for you to do. You're 6-1 on the road, you're winning, but we're only 4-3 at home.' He made that point that we need to learn how to win at home because we're definitely going to be hosting a game here."
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