Harris came to Chicago as a 20-year-old wunderkind out of Oklahoma with the 14th pick in the 2004 NFL Draft. It didn't take the former Sooner long to adjust to the professional game, starting all 16 games as a rookie. Last season, Harris was selected to his first Pro Bowl and already on the short list of best players in the league at his position.
Four games into 2006, he was making a convincing case as the best defensive player in all of football.
Highlighted by a two-sack game against the defending NFC champion Seahawks in Week 4, Harris had five sacks at the quarter post and appeared to be unblockable. Last season's NFL Defensive Player of the Year, fellow Bear Brian Urlacher, was touting Harris as the frontrunner to win that coveted award in 2006. Even when he wasn't making plays, the attention he was commanding from opposing offensive lines created all kinds of favorable matchups for the likes of ends Alex Brown and Mark Anderson.
Harris's production slowed down considerably as the season progressed. But even though he wasn't denting the stat sheet quite as often, his ability to fill gaps and occupy blockers made it much easier for Urlacher to roam free from his middle linebacker position and make plays. Statistics don't always tell the story for a defensive tackle.
But now that Harris was put on injured reserve and will miss the remainder of the season, the rest of the Bears defense will have to pick up the slack.
Harris went down in the second quarter of the Vikings game in Week 13. It originally appeared that he had a sprained left knee and would miss a few weeks, but after further examination, it was determined that he also tore his left hamstring. Harris had successful surgery in Dallas on Tuesday and is expected to make a full recovery before next season.
As opposed to turning to one player, the Bears will now rely on their depth along the D-line. Veteran Alfonso Boone got the start this past Monday at St. Louis beside Tank Johnson, who stayed at nose tackle as opposed to moving over to the three-technique position that Harris usually plays. Reserves Ian Scott, Israel Idonije, and Antonio Garay also saw significant time in the rotation.
Brown - the most tenured member of the defensive line - knows that replacing a player of Harris's caliber is an impossibility, yet he has plenty of confidence in the rest of the depth chart.
"Teams are going to do different things," Brown said on Thursday in the locker room at Halas Hall, "but they've still got to respect the guys that we've got in there. Alfonso Boone, Tank Johnson, we got Antonio, we got Izzy, we got Ian, so they've still got to respect those guys. But yeah, they're not Tommie, obviously."
Despite the fact that Harris wasn't in there ripping through double-teams as he has all year, Brown didn't feel the Rams attacked him any differently.
"No, not really," he said. "Chip blocks. You still get a chip block. You still get a tight end staying in helping the tackle. So other than that, no, not really. Same thing."
Idonije, a third-year player from Manitoba, feels that the intangilbes Harris brings to the table are every bit as important as his physical abilities.
"I think the biggest difference is his energy, his attitude," Idonije said. "You miss him as a person being out there, just what he brings."
Idonije in particular needs to make some adjustments in his game because most of his snaps will now come at defensive tackle as opposed to defensive end.
"It's different," he admitted. "It is definitely different. At the end position, you've got more time to react to what you're seeing. You've got three or four steps before you've got to react. At the tackle position, as soon as that ball is snapped, you've got to come out shooting your guns, using your hands. From the snap, you've got to go because the proximity is so much closer."
Garay had been inactive for all but one game this season, but with Harris out of the picture, he was immediately a part of the rotation against the Rams.
"It's everything I expected," Garay said. "The game hasn't changed. Football is football. So I was excited to be out there and just help the team out the best I could."
After spending most every game on the sideline in street clothes, Garay took some extra time in the film room this week to see what he did right and what he did wrong.
"I got a good opportunity to study film and watch myself over the last couple of days," he said, "and there's a couple things that I need to redefine and work on. And hopefully I can take advantage of that and excel at that this weekend."
The Bears surrendered 27 points and 433 total yards to the Rams in Week 14, but they will get a break on Sunday as they face a 3-10 Buccaneers team that is ranked 31st in total offense and dead last in scoring.
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