How does Harrison fit into the scheme of things?

NFL beat reporter, Rick Gosselin of the Dallas Morning News recently proclaimed that the New England Patriots had the best off-season of any team in professional football. Not only was Gosselin impressed with the Patriots draft, but he also lauded their moves in free agency, particularly the signing of LB Rosevelt Colvin and SS Rodney Harrison. However, given the problems that New England's defense had last season, was the Harrison signing all that wise?

Rodney Harrison is big hitting, Pro Bowl safety still in his prime at age 30. The San Diego Chargers let Harrison go first and foremost for salary cap reasons. The main concern was about Harrison's groin injury that he suffered early in the 2002 season. Harrison would prove he was healthy.

At 6'1" and 220 pounds, what is not to like?

The Oakland Raiders and Denver Broncos were also interested. Considering that these two teams were former rivals of Harrison's, that's quite a compliment.

However, time has quickly buried the other player the Patriots were considering before they landed Harrison, SS Lee Flowers (Pittsburgh Steelers).

Not coincidently, the Broncos recently signed Flowers, clearly showing why head coach Mike Shanahan was interested in Harrison. Flowers and Harrison are run stuffing safeties noted for big hits.

While Flowers does not quite have the resume that Harrison does, the Patriots off-season plan at the strong safety position is clear. At least, it became clear after the draft.

Bill Belichick is to implement the 3-4 base scheme in the 2003 and New England drafted accordingly. Why the switch in the first place?

The Patriots run defense was clearly not up to par and Harrison should help bolster that aspect of play. But New England's biggest problem was on third down and in the red zone.

Problems on third down are well familiar to Steeler fans,. In 2002, the Steelers, who also run a 3-4 base defensive scheme, were 27th in the NFL in terms of defensive third down conversion rate at 43.6%. As a result, the Steelers made no attempt to re-sign Flowers, the scapegoat for the Steelers defensive woes.

The Patriots defense was in the same ballpark, also allowing the opposition to convert on 43% of third down attempts. Strangely, the Patriots went after Flowers, but instead signed Harrison.

The Steelers were not plagued by an inability to stop the run, but teams such as the Patriots spread Pittsburgh out and exploited Flowers poor coverage skills.

Might the Patriots get a dose of the very same medicine that the NFL force-fed the Steelers?

How was Flowers supposed to help the Patriots awful third down defense when he was the biggest reason for the Steelers problems on third down?

Furthermore, the Chargers dumped Harrison for more than cap reasons. San Diego was looking to increase team speed, mostly in the secondary. They felt they could upgrade the safety position and decided to let Harrison walk, much like the Steelers did with Flowers.

But you have to give Belichick and his coaching staff the benefit of the doubt. They figured out how to exploit the Steelers weakness in the 3-4 and they might also figure out the way to fix it, even with similar personnel.

One advantage that the Patriots will have over the 2002 Steelers defense is a larger number of defensive backs that can handle the spread.

Does that mean that Harrison won't see much playing time in the dime?

Belichick could probably afford to do that, but teams may spread the field to keep the hard-hitting Harrison off the field. Much of that will depend on how the Pats 3-4 run defense shapes up, which hinges on the two-gap play of the nose tackle.

Perhaps, New England would have been better off chasing a proven nose tackle in free agency (if there was one) instead of inheriting a type of player that the entire NFL figured out how to abuse in 2002 (and why the New Orleans Saints were so hot to land Tebucky Jones and the Steelers traded up in the first round to grab Troy Polamalu).

Gosselin may have been too quick in his rush to judgment about the Patriots off-season moves.

Jim Russell

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