Key Matchup: Harrison vs Samuel

The last time the Colts faced the Patriots back in November, Marvin Harrison worked against Ellis Hobbs and caught eight passes for 145 yards and two touchdowns. But this Sunday, it's Asante Samuel who draws the assignment against Harrison. Greg Talmage breaks down this key matchup for you...

When the Colts and Patriots played earlier this year Asante Samuel was lining up as the right cornerback in the Patriots defense and it was Ellis Hobbs who manned Marvin Harrison from the left cornerback spot. In Week 13, Samuel and Hobbs swapped positions. So this Sunday it will be Asante Samuel's job to handle Marvin Harrison.

This, however, will not be the first time Samuel has been matched-up against Harrison. The bad news is that for Samuel it's been a case of pick your poison against Colt receivers. Playing right corner earlier this year, Samuel got beat repeatedly by Wayne. Playing left corner last year, Harrison had his way with Samuel. In that game, Marvin garnered 7 catches, 123 receiving yards and 2 touchdowns.

Will things be different this time around? Samuel is on a bit of a hot streak and in the midst of a career year. He led the NFL with 26 defensive "big plays" -- defined as pass breakups, interceptions (10) and sacks -- during the regular season.

His 10 regular season picks tied him with Denver's Champ Bailey for the NFL lead; seven of his 10 interceptions were in the last six games of the regular season, including three against the Bears and two in the season finale against Tennessee. Those 10 regular-season interceptions are the second most in Patriots team history. Samuel also added another pick to seal a 37-16, wild-card victory over the Jets.

With Samuel playing so well of late, maybe the Colts just will just opt to focus on the match-up on the other side—Reggie Wayne vs. Ellis Hobbs. As the Boston Herald pointed out this week, "Opponents haven't been throwing to Asante Samuel's side very often in recent weeks. Instead, they've been focusing on Ellis Hobbs and taking their chances with him."

If the last two games between these two teams are any indicator, though, the Colts will not shy away from or pick on any Patriot corner in particular. According to the coverage metrics, in the last two games combined (11/07/05 and 11/05/06) Manning threw to Samuel's side 21 times for 13 completions, 217 yards and 2 touchdowns. Comparatively, Manning threw 13 balls to the other side in those 2 games for 8 completions, 118 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Patriots CB Asante Samuels tackles Titans RB Travis Henry (Getty Images/Andy Lyons)
To New England, that's all in the past. Samuel is at the top of his game and is playing with a huge amount of confidence. So how does the new and improved Asante Samuel match-up against the future Hall of Fame receiver this time around?

Coach Bill Belichick traces Samuel's ascent into the upper echelon of NFL cornerbacks to sound fundamentals and proper technique. "There's no position on the field where technique and position and the little things are more important than in the secondary," … "In the secondary, you have to cover a guy for two, three, four seconds. You have to be in position and read the release and read the route and break on the ball and use proper technique to make the play on the ball or make the tackle." Belichick said.

The Patriots likely want to use Samuel man-to-man against Harrison whenever possible. After the kind of season he's had, he's developed that kind of trust from Belichick. But Harrison is very tough to handle one-on-one.

There is no better receiver in the league when it comes to precision route-running than Marvin Harrison. This aspect of his game gives even the most talented and tenured corners all sorts of headaches. Just a slight slip-up by a corner and Harrison will make you pay. And he knows how to disguise each route so they all look the same; defenders never know whether he's running a stem, out, curl, streak or comeback. By the time you figure out what he's running, it's likely too late to adjust

When ESPN asked nine defensive backs, "Who is the toughest player to cover in the league," eight of them picked Marvin Harrison.

Samuel will be aggressive to the ball, but it's important that he stays smart when taking risks. Besides that, in single coverage against Harrison, Samuel will try the old Ty Law/ Bill Belichick formula that worked so successfully in playoffs past to get Harrison off his game.

As former NFL scout Jeremy Green noted, the key to slowing is Harrison is contact. "Got to be physical. Got to hit him early. You want to come up and press him and jam him and let him know it's going to be physical" said Green.

Just how much single coverage the Patriots attempt in this matchup is going to be a very interesting aspect of this game. Both the Hobbs/Wayne and Dallas Clark working the middle matchups are more worrisome for New England than this one. So with that said, I expect to see plenty of man coverage on Harrison.

Of course, it will not be man coverage all evening. So when Samuel plays "off" coverage, Harrison's goal will be to get a quick release, take the short middle and work to make plays after the catch before the safety can get down.

Samuel has been playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder since the NFL leader in takeaways was snubbed out of the Pro Bowl selection. Certainly nothing more would prove that Samuel has truly arrived than shutting down a perennial Pro Bowler like Marvin Harrison.

Harrison has also been playing with a bit of a chip on his shoulder though since those playoff losses against New England in 2003 and 2004. He's caught a total of 17 balls for 273 yards and 4 touchdowns in the last two games at New England.

Keep your eye on this key matchup on Sunday. This should be a great one to watch!


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