Since becoming a starter in late 2002, cornerback Nick Harper has settled nicely into the Colts defense and the Tony Dungy system. Unlike the guy who starts at left cornerback for this week's Colts opponent, Nick Harper will never be confused for a "shutdown" corner. But Harper plays with a consistency and steadiness that is not easily found amongst cornerbacks. He excels in the Dungy zone, doing a good job keeping receivers in front and rarely lets himself get beat deep.
Harper will need to be at his best this weekend because the receiver he will be assigned to cover, Denver's Javon Walker, is capable of turning in a big play whenever he touches the ball. The problem for Denver this season, though, has been getting the ball to him. Walker is averaging about 5 catches per game, but has seen the endzone just twice (both TDs came in the same game) and has had just two 100-yard receiving games. His first 100-yard game was at New England where he caught just three passes but logged 130 yards, largely on the impetus of one 83-yard TD catch. His second one was last week against Cleveland, catching nine balls for 107 yards.
Recently, Walker was asked how to fix a Broncos offense that ranks last in the NFL in touchdowns. His response was, "I'll just say it: Give me the ball, I want the ball." And then he said, "I don't think I've been as big a part of the offense as I can be. But I'm just part of it. This isn't complaining or saying I'm unhappy."
Denver's head coach Mike Shanahan agreed, saying, "We've got to just keep trying to get him the ball. Obviously, he's making some big plays. Once he gets that ball in his hands, he usually does something with it." So getting Walker the ball and letting his playmaking ability take its course is something Denver wants to do more of. And they took a step that direction last weekend against the Browns.
Since Nick Harper is at his best in zone coverage, keeping Walker in front and tackling well is the key to not letting the "playmaker" make big plays. Harper will sometimes frustrate Colt fans because of his apparent tendency to give too big a cushion and let too much happen in front of him. But Harper likely knows he lacks the recovery quickness to make-up the steps needed if a receiver gets by him, so he compensates by giving that extra cushion. Harper simply doesn't show a second-gear downfield. Against Walker, Harper must use his instincts and range well, despite the fact that it doesn't appear that the Broncos receiver has fully -- or at least consistently -- hit his stride yet.
Javon Walker is coming off major reconstructive knee surgery that caused him to miss practically all of 2005. Many thought it would be unlikely that Walker would have all his speed back for the first half of the 2006 season, allowing him to blow by corners like he used to. Some believe that's the reason for Walker's inability to become a consistent threat in the passing game. Others blame play-calling or Jake Plummer. Whatever the reason, the fact is that all of Denver is waiting for that breakout game from Walker, knowing it could happen at any moment.
With Nick Harper's knack for keeping plays in front of him, Denver fans may have to wait another week. But Walker could certainly turn in another nine or ten catch performance, chipping away for an average of 10-12 yards per catch as a result of Harper's style, with Walker taking whatever Harper is willing to yield. But a key to this matchup will be on those few plays when Jake Plummer will likely try to hook up with his star receiver for a quick six for a deep pass as he has a few times this season. The winner of those toss-ups will likely have an important impact on the outcome of this game.