Granted, Harper is somewhat dubious in pass coverage, and he possesses suspect hands, as evidenced when he muffed a would-be interception in the end zone last week that would have denied the Falcons a last-second field goal and allowed the Saints to win in regulation. And in last season's forgettable playoff loss at Seattle, the sixth-year veteran was absolutely brutalized by a Seattle passing game in which Seahawks' quarterback Matt Hasselbeck continually isolated him in coverage on a tight end.
In Harper's last 56 appearances, he has one interception, that coming last year. He had zero interceptions in three of his previous five campaigns.
But when it came time to deal with Harper as an unrestricted free agent this summer, the Saints re-upped him with a four-year, $28.5 million extension that included a $7 million signing bonus.
And they did so without qualm, despite the fact Harper has only four career interceptions.
The reason: Harper, 28, is a terrific fit in the New Orleans scheme, defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves the guy and divines ways to camouflage his shortcomings and accentuate his strengths, and the former Alabama standout and two-time Pro Bowl performer is a leader in the locker room and the community.
Said General Manager Mickey Loomis: "Just a tremendous person. He plays the game the way it's supposed to be played and he (conducts) himself so well. He's got a lot of the (traditional) qualities."
For sure, in a pass-oriented era in which so many franchises are seeking out safeties, even strong safeties, with cover skills, Harper is a bit of an anachronism. Few defenses employ the classic "in the box" safety anymore, and the position definitely is out of vogue, but Harper is at his best playing close to the line of scrimmage. His presence is generally felt far more against the run than the pass. And in the passing game, Harper is arguably more effective as a blitzer, either from the inside or even off the edge, than a one-on-one coverage defender.
Harper is a throwback-type safety, not to 20 or so years ago, certainly, but to maybe just six or seven seasons ago, when "in the box" safeties were the rage.
Despite the critics, the always well-spoken and affable Harper contends that he is a better cover player than some games — like the debacle in Seattle, a 41-36 defeat in which Harper may have had his worst outing in the NFL, and for which he became an even easier target for the media than for Hasselbeck — suggest he is.
"But," added Harper, whose sack of Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was the only one recorded by the Saints' defense last week, "probably like every defensive player does, I do enjoy hitting the quarterback. And sacks get everyone excited."
So far this season, Harper has registered 6.5 sacks, the most in the league by a defensive back, with Cincinnati's Chris Crocker the next highest, at 2.5. This marks the third time in Harper's career that he has posted three or more sacks in a season. With six games still to play, Harper has a viable shot at the single-season record by a defensive back, of eight sacks, by Arizona strong safety Adrian Wilson in 2005, since sacks became a league-recognized statistic in 1982.
In 2009, standing on the sideline in Houston, at a combined Texans-Saints training camp practice, former NFL quarterback Bobby Hebert, now a sports-talk radio host and a well-studied analyst for New Orleans games, predicted to this columnist that Williams, then in his first season with the club, would use Harper extensively as a rusher. Not a bad prediction at all, since Harper has 11 of his career 16 sacks in the 2 1/2 seasons that Williams has been the coordinator. No safety in the league has as many sacks in the same timeframe.
And, none, either, has as many as the 16 sacks Harper has posted since entering the NFL as the Saints' second-round choice in the 2006 draft. By comparison, Wilson, who for years was regarded as the NFL's premier pass-rushing safety, has 11.5 sacks since 2006, none this season.
Pittsburgh's Troy Polamalu has never had more than three sacks in a season. Former standout strong safety Rodney Harrison, who holds the NFL record for sacks by a defensive back, never had more than six. Denver safety Brian Dawkins, who has 25 careers sacks, had a personal best of 3.5. Tampa Bay cornerback Ronde Barber, with 27 sacks in his league tenure, has a high of 5.5. No one in the previous five years has more than five, and the leader in 2010, Oakland strong safety Tyvon Branch, notched four.
That's not meant to ignore or overshadow Harper's coverage liabilities, but instead to validate his significance in the New Orleans scheme, where Williams loves to press the line of scrimmage, send rushers at the quarterback from exotic angles that perhaps only Dick LeBeau or Rex Ryan could appreciate, and force turnovers.
"He's perfect," Williams said, "for what we do. We wouldn't be the same without him. I felt it was important to not let him get away (in free agency)."
For his part, Harper, who was forced in 2010 to play on a one-year tender deal as a restricted free agent -- he would have been unrestricted under the former rules, but the uncapped season altered his status -- is thrilled to be back with the only NFL team for which he has ever played.
"Sometimes," he said, "the best fit is the old fit."
Harper may very well be the square peg in the round safety hole, given the way the game and the position are played these days, but Saints defensive veterans to a man acknowledge that he is a key to the unit. New Orleans, for instance, didn't bring back free safety Darren Sharper for '11, feeling that Malcolm Jenkins was a better player. But speaking with Saints' players, the overwhelming consensus was that there was no more optimum option than Harper at strong safety.
No player is indispensible (although some might argue Peyton Manning comes close based on the Indianapolis results this year), and Harper is too modest to suggest that he couldn't be replaced, but his teammates insist it would be tough to find a strong safety who means so much.
"A great team guy who holds it all together," Jenkins said. "I'm not sure we could do some of the things we do without him. I don't know that anybody else would fit so well into the (scheme) like he does."
In addition to leading New Orleans in sacks, Harper is the Saints' top tackler, with 69 stops, and is on pace for a career best in that category. He has conspicuously missed some tackle attempts -- he was one of the New Orleans tacklers who whiffed against Seattle tailback Marshawn Lynch on the latter's highlight reel 69-yard TD run in the playoff game last year and slid off Atlanta's Jason Snelling on a 21-yard scoring catch last week -- but is regarded as a solid tackler.
"I don't think I miss many," said Harper, who in addition to his 16 career sacks, has forced 14 fumbles, including six in 2010, second most in the league. "I take pride in that, the way I do being an all-around good player."
Last week's win at the Georgia Dome was typical of the way Harper likes to play. On nearly three-fourths of the Falcons' 32 rushing plays, he was unofficially aligned within three yards of the line of scrimmage. He blitzed five times on Atlanta's 53 pass plays, and Harper recorded the Saints' lone two "hurries" in addition to the club's only sack.
He had one pass defensed and a game-high 13 tackles, two for losses.
"It was a great (performance)," said Saints' coach Sean Payton. "Maybe one of his best (ever)."
He was, and is, "Dat Boy," indeed.
Around the league
Quarterback body count: Last week, when the NFL was essentially turned into a M*A*S*H unit with an inordinate amount of players shuffled onto injured reserve, was a graphic reminder of what a war of attrition the league can be. And in a season in which the first six weeks produced incredible stability at quarterback, it was a wake-up call as to how fragile things can be at the game's most critical position. "You don't think about the injuries," New Orleans' Drew Brees said. "But every game you get out without (an injury), especially the way defenses are coming after the quarterback, you're relieved." Through the first six weeks of the season, there were only three switches of starting quarterbacks, never more than one in a week. In weeks 7 through 10, there were 11 changes, with seven in Week 7 and four in Week 9. There figure to be three more this weekend. There have been 43 different starters so far, and Sunday will bring at least two more, in Tyler Palko (Kansas City) and Matt Leinart (Houston), with the possibility of Vince Young in Philadelphia. The body count doesn't figure to reach the 64 different starters it did in 2007, but could exceed the 52 from last season. Said one veteran quarterback to The Sports Xchange this week: "You feel like one of those clay pigeons in a skeet-shooting tournament. There's a bull's eye on you, and (defenses) are gunning for you. It's like a shooting gallery, you know?"
Capital offenses: With the first five-game losing streak of coach Mike Shanahan's career, the heat on the Washington coach is definitely increasing, but The Sports Xchange was told this week by normally reliable Redskins operatives that owner Dan Snyder has yet to mention the "F-word" (as in "fire") even to close confidants. In his 13th season of stewardship, Snyder is now working on his sixth different full-time coach, and only Joe Gibbs (2004-2007) lasted more than two seasons. The conventional wisdom around the league is that the Redskins — for whom defensive tackle Barry Cofield opined this week things could get "historically ugly" if things don't change soon — could make a change at year's end. But people close to the club insist Snyder has altered his impetuous ways a bit, ceding more sway to general manager Bruce Allen, and that it might be just as likely that Shanahan steps down at age 59, as it is that Snyder hands him a pink slip.
All thumbs: Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman has insisted several times that his play isn't affected by the thumb injury with which he is dealing. But some Bucs players to whom The Sports Xchange spoke this week disagree. Freeman, regarded as a real up-and-comer, has thrown 13 interceptions and simply isn't throwing the ball with the same kind of accuracy he displayed a year ago. People who have watched the disappointing Bucs also note that Freeman isn't getting a whole lot of help from his receivers. Mike Williams is on pace for 69 receptions, which would put him above last year's rookie total of 65, but he's lacked explosiveness, and has even been critical of his own level of play. After averaging 14.8 yards per reception in 2010, Williams is down to 10.4 yards per catch, and he has just one touchdown after scoring 11 last year. Fellow second-year wideout Arrelious Benn has started all nine games, but has just 19 catches. Williams and Benn were selected in 2010 with the idea they would "grow up" with Freeman, but they haven't yet developed the way Tampa Bay executives hoped they would. In fact, Benn probably has regressed a bit.
The deal not made: Speaking of the Redskins, remember the proposed 2007 trade, brokered by agent Drew Rosenhaus, in which the Redskins declined to send a young and developing Rocky McIntosh to Chicago as part of a package for the disgruntled Lance Briggs? Well, the swap of linebackers never happened, and four years later, the non-trade doesn't look to good for the 'Skins. Briggs has only enhanced his stature as a Pro Bowl-caliber 'backer, and a lot of league observers had him on their mid-season All-Pro team. McIntosh is on injured reserve, with a pair of torn knee ligaments, and could leave the Redskins in the spring as a free agent, although the knee injury will probably diminish his value a bit. But even before the torn ACL and MCL ligaments, McIntosh looked like a fish out of water playing in the 3-4 front that coordinator Jim Haslett brought to Washington last season. He was clearly being outplayed at linebacker this year by rookie first-rounder Ryan Kerrigan and the ageless wonder London Fletcher. Providing McIntosh is healthy by the spring, his best bet might be to sign with a 4-3 team, where he can resume his career as a weak-side 'backer, instead of playing inside next to Fletcher in the 3-4. Sure, it's revisionist history to revisit. Still, four years after the trade — in which the Redskins had already agreed to a new contract with Briggs but balked when Chicago general manager Jerry Angelo demanded that McIntosh be included in the trade package — one can only wonder about how the fortunes of the two players and teams might have been different if the swap would have occurred.
The great debate: It won't settle the debate that still rages in Atlanta, even nearly a week after Falcons' coach Mike Smith decided on a fourth-and-1 try from his own 29-yard line in overtime in last week's loss to the Saints, and it's not designed to. But here's a breakdown, one we haven't seen anywhere else, of Smith's past attempts at fourth-and-1 conversions in his 3 1/2 seasons as the Atlanta head coach: Before the much scrutinized failed fourth-down play versus the Saints, Smith had gambled on 22 fourth-and-one calls, and converted 19 of them, including one earlier in the New Orleans game on Sunday, with tailback Michael Turner going for 5 yards on a fourth-and-1 call from the New Orleans 26-yard line in the third quarter. On those 22 plays, Turner was 6-for-8 in conversions, both failures coming in 2008. Two other backs, Ovie Mughelli and Jason Snelling, combined for three conversions in three attempts. Matt Ryan was 5-for-6 and backup Chris Redman one-for-one, so the Falcons were 6-for-7 on quarterback sneaks. The Falcons completed passes for first downs three times and gained one conversion via penalty. Of course, the game situation and Smith's reluctance to punt the ball to the league's top-rated offense and Drew Brees entered into the equation, but notable is that the Falcons' coach never attempted a fourth-and-1 closer than his own 38-yard line before last week. That fourth-down try, against Denver in 2008, marked the only other time that Smith had called for a fourth-down conversion in his own territory. Fifteen of the fourth-and-1 attempts came inside the "red zone." So what does it all mean? Hey, you, and all the folks who have crunched the statistics, can be the judges. The breakdown is presented only as historical background. We're on record, both in print and on TV and radio, as noting we had no problem with the decision, only with the play-call. Since we didn't "first-guess" Smith from the press box last Sunday, we won't second-guess either. But the handoff to Turner, easily stuffed by the Saints' defense, simply seemed to have too many moving parts, when a quarterback sneak would have been simpler and quicker. By the way, before the pivotal fourth-down play, the Falcons had converted 35 of 55 fourth-down tries in Smith's tenure. The 63.6 percent success rate, though, we be as remembered as last week's failure.
Miller time: When the Denver Broncos were considering their draft options with the second overall pick in the lottery last spring, and many (especially early in the process) felt that Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley was a slam-dunk for the spot, Coach John Fox kept telling everyone, including The Sports Xchange, that he wanted a player who would affect third down. "A third-down impact guy," Fox kept telling his personnel people. Well, Fox and the Broncos certainly got one in strong-side linebacker Von Miller, the former Texas A&M standout who has 9.5 sacks, and been perhaps even better than advertised. What kind of impact has Miller, the all-but-certain defense rookie of the year, had on the Broncos' third-down defense? Denver has the 1oth-best third-down stop rate in the league, at 35.6 percent. That's only slightly better than a year ago, when the Broncos were better on third down than their No. 32 overall statistical ranking might indicate. But the Broncos have risen from last in the league defensively to No. 17, quite a jump, and its veteran players credit the ability to get off the field on third down for the improvement. "The (statistics) might not say it's a big difference, but it is," defensive end Elvis Dumervil noted to The Sports Xchange. That's particularly the case in the past five games, in which the Broncos are 4-1, with Tim Tebow as the starter. Tebow deservedly gets a lot of credit, despite having yet to complete half his passes in a game, but the Denver defense on third down should not be overlooked. The Broncos have permitted their last five opponent a paltry conversion rate of only 25.4 percent (16 of 63), and Miller, the third-down impact player Fox coveted, has at least a half-sack in four of those five outings. Dumervil has cranked it up as well, with all 3.5 of his sacks for the year during the team's current three-game winning streak.
Stepping out on a Branch: Last week, the Tip Sheet detailed the possibility that Oakland backup tailback Michael Bush, who this week is likely to make a third straight start in place of the injured Darren McFadden, could be a heavily pursued unrestricted free agent next spring. Sure enough, Oakland executives have had some high-level internal discussions, The Sports Xchange has confirmed, about the potential for keeping Bush around, and probably will float him an extension offer sometime before the end of the season. Raiders officials aren't confident, however of keeping Bush, who has rushed for 253 yards and a 5.2-yard average in two starts, off the unrestricted market. Some feel, in fact, he harbors some hard feelings that the team didn't offer a long-term deal last summer, when he was a restricted free agent, and ultimately forced to sign a one-year tender. The Raiders are more optimistic about another potential unrestricted free agent, strong safety Tyvon Branch, and he may become a priority target in coming weeks. "The guy is a really good player," a Raiders source said. "Really good." The four-year veteran Branch has started 44 straight contests, has outshone safety partner and former first-round pick Michael Huff, and has impressed people around the league with his toughness and all-around performance. A former UConn standout and fourth-round pick in 2008, Branch, just 24, has 69 tackles in the first nine games. He is a good blitzer (four sacks in 2010), a solid coverage guy, and a bargain at about $550,000 this year. Someone, whether it's the Raiders or another team, is going to pay him a lot more in the future. Oakland officials will make a hard push in the coming weeks.
Punts: Some scouts who watched first-hand Tennessee's dismantling of Carolina last week, or personnel officials who reviewed the game via video, told The Sports Xchange that Titans' defensive coordinator Jerry Gray had the best game plan yet that they've seen against Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Gray used a "spy" against Newton, but apparently varied the defender between a linebacker and a safety, kept the quarterback contained, and didn't give him a clean pocket at all from which to throw. By the way, after throwing for over 400 yards in his first two starts as a pro, Newton has averaged 250.1 yards and had over 300 yards just once in the ensuing nine games. ... To his credit, Newton has been frustrated by the losing, and has correctly downplayed his personal successes. Newton lost just one game in his college career, counting his time in junior college, but he's 2-7 in the NFL. ... The Cleveland Browns are typically at the back of the pack in the AFC North, but the one positive ray has been the progress of the defense under first-year coordinator Dick Jauron. The veteran coach switched to a 4-3 this season, and people questioned how well the unit would play, given the preponderance of 3-4 personnel. But the defense is considerably ahead of the offense at this point, and tackles Ahtyba Rubin and first-round pick Phil Taylor, both considered more 3-4 nose tackles than 4-3 defenders, have both played well. ... There continue to be rumblings that, if quarterback Colt McCoy doesn't pick it up in the second half of the season, Cleveland may consider bringing in a veteran starter-type player to challenge him next summer. ... On the flip side of the struggles of Freeman, mentioned previously, another quarterback with a thumb injury, Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger, is said to have thrown the ball well this week in the light practices the Steelers held before breaking for their bye. ... Steelers players were universally impressed with the moxie that rookie quarterback Andy Dalton displayed in last week's loss. Said linebacker James Farrior; "We threw a lot at him and he didn't bllnk." ... There is a lot of credit to go around for the resurgence in Dallas, starting with the play of quarterback Tony Romo, but people in the league mention wide receiver Laurent Robinson as an unheralded guy who helped the team hang in when things weren't going especially well. Traded or released by four teams, including being cut by the Cowboys early in the year, and then re-signed, Robinson has started only two games, but has 27 catches, and played well when Dez Bryant and Miles Austin were subpar. ... We've been critical in this space of linebacker Aaron Curry, the former fourth overall choice of Seattle in the 2009 draft, but clearly we were wrong about the one-time Wake Forest star. The Raiders, who dealt for Curry on Oct. 12, just in advance of the trade deadline, insist he has been outstanding for them at the weak linebacker spot in his four starts. ... The opinions of former Pennsylvania governor and unabashed Eagles fan Ed Rendell aside, Philadelphia officials certainly don't expect coach Andy Reid to retire at the end of this disappointing season. And, at least for now, there certainly is no discussion of firing him. ... The Eagles have been outscored 74-20 in the fourth quarter and that number, plus the indiscretion of wide receiver DeSean Jackson last week, has raised some questions about Reid's toughness. But the people who make the key decisions with the team haven't broached the issue, and the feeling is that Jackson's contract situation will still be addressed, although he hasn't exactly helped his bargaining position. .. Scouts who have watched Seattle agree that Earl Thomas is an elite safety, but suggest partner Kam Chancellor is also very good.