While the focus for Sunday's game is going to be on the stars for Carolina's defense, the Colts would be wise to pay attention to the Panthers' young, hard-hitting strong safety, Chris Harris, and what he brings to the table.
Harris was originally taken by the Chicago Bears in the sixth round (181st overall) in the 2005 NFL Draft out of the University of Louisiana at Monroe. He soon supplanted incumbent starter Mike Green at the free safety position and finished his rookie year with 53 tackles, one sack, and three interceptions.
Last season -- his second with the Bears -- he tallied 50 tackles, two interceptions and five passes defended. Due to injuries in the Carolina secondary and the fact that the Panthers liked what they saw on film, they traded a fifth-round pick in the 2008 draft for Harris on August 2 and moved him to strong safety to fill the gap created by veteran Mike Minter's retirement. Harris has started every game this season and has 30 tackles, one interception, two passes defended and an impressive four forced fumbles.
Aside from the fact that he came from a small school, some scouts considered Harris to be too small (6-foot tall, 205 pounds) to play strong safety, a bit too slow, and lacking the coverage ability to play free safety. But when the pads went on and the plays counted, Harris was able to show what he can do, playing both positions the past three seasons with skill, precision, and ferocity.
While in Chicago, Harris gained a reputation as a solid tackler who made good contact with the ball carrier -- and often caused more collisions than anything else. He was flagged and fined for unnecessary roughness and helmet-to-helmet contact penalties early in his career. He has learned a good deal of discipline during his tenure in the league, but has kept his intensity level high and has not lost his penchant for turning the game of football into a collision sport rather than just a contact sport.
Although many consider Carolina to have one of the best front sevens in the league, they have been inconsistent and struggled a bit on run defense, ranking 18th in the league coming into their matchup against the defending World Champions. And, although many still consider Indianapolis to be a passing team, the Colts currently rank sixth in the NFL in rushing yards per game. Against the vaunted run defense of the Jacksonville Jaguars the Colts managed a healthy 141 total yards and 4.3 yards per carry.
Chris Harris battles Atlanta's Joe Horn
AP Photo/John Bazemore
In what would seem to be a classic case of the moveable object versus the irresistible force, Harris' ability to fill in against the run quickly and with a stiff physical presence will be a big key towards determining whether or not the Panthers are able to slow down the Indianapolis offense. Even though Peyton Manning has rarely seen eight in the box, the Panthers will try to cheat Harris up to the line in order to prevent the offense from getting into an early rhythm. Over the course of his career, Manning has become better friends with his running game and accepts the fact that it is a necessary and very important part of a successful, balanced offense. Indianapolis has been effective and most consistent when they have been able to run the ball 30 or more times a game for around four yards per carry.
Not only does the running game help the pace of the offense and Manning's rhythm, it sets up the play-action passing game, where Manning can be especially dangerous. Additionally, the more success the Colts have running the ball, the more Harris will creep up into the box and the more likely he will be to bite on a play fake and leave Reggie Wayne isolated one-on-one with Ken Lucas deep.
Where Indianapolis must proceed with some degree of caution is in the running game even though Kenton Keith and Joseph Addai have excelled at ball security so far this season. Between the pair, they've fumbled just once out of 166 carries, and even that one fumbled was recovered by the Colts. But neither one will ever be mistaken for a big, bruising, physical back that relishes the kind of contact that Harris is known to deliver. Addai's bruised shoulder now appears to be healthy, but the Colts like Keith's production as well and want to lessen the toll of the season on their featured back, so both men need to be cognizant of Harris and where he is on the field.
If they don't keep track of Harris, the result could be a negative play, a fumble, or even worse -- an injury.