Cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. might have just recently popped up on the national media’s radar for his performance in 2014, but in Denver, his reputation has been one of excellence, ever since he joined the Denver Broncos from the undrafted ranks in 2011.
Throughout his career, Harris has been one of the highest-graded cornerbacks in the NFL. With the exception of his rookie season, he has been rated in the top-10 for cornerbacks each season, according to Pro Football Focus.
In this film piece, we’ll take a look at some of his 2014 tape. Harris’ breakout in 2014, which led to him being ranked as PFF’s No. 1 corner, is one to marvel at. Let’s take a look at what made Harris so phenomenal last season.
All animated images via NFL Rewind.
Play No. 1
Week 1 vs. Indianapolis Colts
The Colts come out in 13-personnel (3 TE), with QB Andrew Luck in the shotgun. They’re running trips left, with TE Colby Fleener on the outside and WR T.Y. Hilton on the inside. The Colts are hoping for zone confusion but at the snap, the Broncos play it well—in man coverage.
The Broncos are in their base 4-3 defense in cover one. Harris is on the far defensive right, with outside responsibilities, playing off-man on Fleener. At the snap, the Colts trips all break left at different levels.
Fleener runs a corner route and Luck tries to hit him on the back shoulder. Harris gives Fleener quite the cushion but breaks on the ball in the air with startling speed and deflects the ball, saving a touchdown. Fleener arguably mistimed his jump, making it somewhat easier for Harris to disrupt the pass.
Had Fleener timed his jump perfectly, I still don’t see him coming down with this one, as Harris’ knack for punching the ball out in the nick of time is among the best in the NFL. Harris has the ability to allow a 7-8 yard cushion because of his closing speed.
Play No. 2
Week 2 vs. Kansas City Chiefs
The Chiefs are in 21-personnel (2 RB, 2 WR). FB Anthony Sherman starts off the play in a trips formation on the far right of the formation, but goes in motion, eventually ending up back in his FB role in an off-set “I”.
QB Alex Smith is under center, but the Chiefs want the Broncos to think they’re going to throw, hence the Sherman chicanery, but he is really there to lead block for RB Knile Davis. The Broncos are in base defense, with Harris in his customary spot on the defensive right (bottom of screen).
At the snap, Sherman seals off the backside of the play, taking out DE Derek Wolfe. The play flows left towards Harris. He fights through an ineffectual block from the WR in time to knife into the backfield and stop Davis for a five-yard loss.
The Chiefs block this play poorly, as DE DeMarcus Ware forces Davis to kick it outside towards Harris and the boundary. Had Harris been blocked out of the play, LB Brandon Marshall would have still cleaned it up for a significant loss of yards. However, this play shows Harris’ prowess in the run game. He’s a gritty, physical defensive back.
Play No. 3
Week 5 vs. Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals are in a four-WR set (10 personnel), with two split out on each side of the line. QB Drew Stanton is in the shotgun with his RB. The Broncos are in their nickel sub-package, with FS Rahim Moore as the single-high safety, playing centerfield.
Harris is again giving his assignment, in this case, WR Michael Floyd, a cushion, but this time, he’s playing with inside leverage, meaning that he wants to take away the inside breaking route and utilize the boundary for help. This technique comes in handy here.
Stanton knew where he was going with this ball before the snap. He looked off Moore just long enough to keep 6-foot-3 Floyd isolated with the 5-foot-10 Harris. However, he has underestimated his opponent.
Harris maintains his inside leverage as Floyd takes him down the sideline. It’s a jump-ball situation, which gives Floyd the advantage, but Harris deflects the ball at the high-point for the incompletion. The Cardinals were lucky Harris didn’t pick it off.
Stanton’s throw doesn’t account for Harris’ technique. It would have stood a higher chance of success had it been back-shoulder, but nevertheless, Harris makes a touchdown-saving play here, despite the physical mismatch.
Play No. 4
Week 5 vs. Arizona Cardinals
We hear the common complaint that Harris too often lines up against the opposition’s No. 2 or No. 3 WR, and thus he shouldn’t be considered a true shutdown corner. This is simply not the case. In this play, the Cardinals are lined up in 11-personnel, with two receivers split out left, including the 6-foot-3 Larry Fitzgerald.
Harris draws him as his assignment at the bottom of the screen. The Broncos are in their nickel sub-package, with SS T.J. Ward creeping up right before the snap—showing blitz. Harris gives Fitzgerald a three-yard cushion, playing with a slight inside shade.
To Fitzgerald’s credit, despite his opponent’s inside technique, he’s able to cross Harris’ face on the slant and it looks like an easy completion. The throw is a little high, but it’s a ball Fitzgerald has hauled in countless times in his career.
In this case, however, Harris recovers quickly from getting beat off the snap and again sticks his arm into the breadbasket, deflecting the pass away. IN-COM-PLETE! Opponents know they might get a step on Harris, but he has the recovery speed to make up for it.
Play No. 5
Week 7 vs. San Francisco 49ers
The ‘Niners are lined up in 21-personnel, with TE Vernon Davis and WR Anquan Boldin split out to the left. FB Bruce Miller will go in motion from right to left, giving the ‘Niners a trips-left formation. QB Colin Kaepernick is in the pistol to start, but drifts under center with Miller’s motion.
The Broncos are in base defense, with Harris in his customary spot on the right. The ‘Niners have the look they want, with only two Broncos defenders lined up in the vicinity of their bunch formation.
At the snap, Kaepernick fires the ball to Boldin on the bubble screen and were it not for a phenomenal effort by Harris to snake through Davis’ block, this play would have gashed the Broncos defense. Again we see Harris’ high motor and football IQ for recognizing this play for what it was.
Chris Harris, Jr. is a gem and one of the Broncos defensive cornerstones. His skill-set will allow defensive coordinator Wade Phillips the freedom to get very creative in his scheme, whether via various blitz packages, or coverages.
Harris may have been snubbed on the NFL Network’s Top-100 Players of 2015, but he did earn the recognition he deserved in 2014, with his first Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors, as well as a cushy new contract extension. The Broncos have a player to build around in the secondary for years to come.