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Broncos Film Room: Why Chris Harris Jr. has been better than ever

Andre Simone Avatar
November 17, 2018

In all the doom and gloom of a 3-and-6 season marred by close defeats, the Denver Broncos have still had some bright spots in 2018.

One of those bright spots has been cornerback Chris Harris Jr., who has been nothing short of spectacular while playing 98.6 percent of the defensive snaps.

Having to take the mantle on a full-time basis as Denver’s No. 1 corner after Aqib Talib’s departure, Harris has been as good if not significantly better than he was with Talib in 2017.

Appearing in more snaps—in 2017 he was featured in 88 percent of the snaps on ‘D’— No. 25 has allowed fewer yards per reception—9.6 compared to 14.3—and yards per target, 5.5 versus 7.2.

He has already matched his output in pass deflections (7) and is close to matching his solo tackle numbers, too. Harris hasn’t allowed a TD all season either after conceding three in 2017 and has allowed only 25 receptions on 585 snaps—4 percent of the time—the exact same percentage he gave up a year ago with 36 receptions on 869 snaps.

Harris is firmly in his prime and despite allowing a higher percentage of the targets thrown his way to become receptions—60.4% in 2018 to only 50.7% in 2017—he’s been asked to do even more and has been as good, if not better, becoming the seventh-best cornerback in the NFL per PFF and besting his DPR rating by a full four points with a 70.46.

With all that high-end production, we had to go back to the tape to analyze what has allowed the Broncos former 2011 undrafted free agent turned Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champ, into such a force this season.

Physicality at the line

What’s amazing about No. 25, is how physical he can be at the line, especially considering his diminutive 5-foot-10 and 199-pound frame.

Harris’ abilities as a press corner are a big part of what makes him such a splendid cover man in the slot, where playing close to the line is part of the job requirement. More importantly, that physicality to press is what has made him such an effective defender in coverage outside, where he has a significant size disadvantage often giving up 3-to-4 inches.

Harris packs a punch and is wiry strong, scrapping for every inch in the first five yards. He’ll disrupt the timing of a route, redirect receivers and force them to go where he wants them too.

Even on a slant—which can be one one of the toughest routes to defend for an NFL corner in man with no help—he’s unfazed, can disrupt a receivers rhythm at the line and make impact plays on the ball.

A great example is this snap in coverage outside on Micheal Crabtree back in Week 3, where he locked down the wideout and then stripped him of the ball.

Talib and Crabtree’s chain-snatching bouts will be remembered by Broncos fans, what Harris did here is the football equivalent of a chain snatch, as a slant can’t be defended much better than that in press.

Harris is physical enough to mix it up with tight ends at the line too and has such strong hands he can make plays on the ball with ease; disrupting a target’s entry for a pass with one hand and coming with his other arm to make a play on the ball.

Just watch him against the best tight end in the NFL, Travis Kelce, in another textbook defensive play.

Plays like these are what make the three-time Pro Bowler so dynamic as a slot defender.

Harris is good in off-coverage as well, with the instincts and closing speed to pounce on the ball with the action in front of him, but in press, he’s just another animal.

It’s weird to say about a 5-foot-10 CB, but he is simply one of the best in the business who fears no man. His physicality at the line is a big part of why he hasn’t allowed any big plays this season, as he just doesn’t let those he covers get any sort of build up speed. He slows them down at the stem of their route and is in their back pocket the entire time, challenging and redirecting every step of the way.

The subtle things he does are essential for Harris to succeed as he harasses receivers and takes away any potential separation they’re trying to create on every single snap, which is why he’s challenged so infrequently. 

Not just at the line, Harris’ physicality shows up in other areas of the game, as he’s a phenomenal tackler who can stop receivers short of the sticks and won’t allow any YAC.

He’s arguably one of the surest tacklers on the defense with textbook tackles wrapping up runners and allowing them no escape.

The former Jayhawk tackles like an undrafted free agent in that he’s a player who’s fighting for everything he’s got and can’t possibly let his man slip away. Despite his elite status, his compete level and hunger are off the charts.

In the slot, he can be a dangerous blitzer as well, with his speed, motor and ability in pursuit allowing him to sack even the NFL’s most mobile QBs, like the sack below on Russell Wilson.

With a dynamic playmaker out the slot that can blitz, be a sure tackler, and cover anyone from WRs to TEs outside or inside, a defensive coordinator’s life is a lot easier.

The eyes of a hawk

Watch Harris on a play-to-play basis and you’ll notice he’s never just facing his receiver, he always keeps his eyes on the ball and gets his head turned around when the pass is coming his way.

His eye discipline is truly elite, allowing him to always play the ball and be hyper-aware when he’s getting targeted, keeping the action in front of him so that he can read and react—watch him below on the near side, as he plays the ball perfectly on a deep attempt to the much bigger Brandon Marshall.

His reaction time is also uncanny, as he’s laser-focused and when the ball is in his area he’s hunting, looking to make a play and at worst bring the receiver down immediately after a catch is made.

That’s all tied into his eye discipline, instincts, and ball skills, qualities that Harris has an abundance of. This allows him to play equally well in zone or man coverage, as he can react downhill just as well as he does reading the QB when chasing after a receiver on an island.

His lack of height doesn’t bother him because his timing is impeccable, allowing him to make outstretched deflections thanks to all his elite traits.

Chris is just in a perfect position to play the ball at all times, a quality that’s just rare for a cornerback in the toughest league in the world. That type of consistency is the mark of a great player, and Harris is certainly that.

His instincts are off the charts as he plays with zero hesitation. Just watch him against the New York Jets, lined up as the defender on the far side of the formation towards the strong side.

Despite being on the opposite side of the field, he still makes an insane play chasing the tight end down across the formation, is never tricked by the block and release route and absolutely pounces on the ball with beyond perfect timing to force the incompletion.

Interceptions or pass deflection statistics aren’t the measures of great ball skills; plays like these are, where on-point eye discipline and immediate reaction time are the mark of a true ball hawk.

Ability to play all over the field

You can’t talk about the Broncos star in the secondary without mentioning his versatility, as he can cover anyone and line up anywhere in the formation. This is a trait that has made Harris both unique and extremely special.

Whether lined up outside against bigger WR’s or in the slot versus quick-twitch athletes, Harris is a menace to separate from.

Even against tight ends, he’s just unfazed and can do what he wants, nullifying big plays with ease this year—though, his fellow defenders opening up holes in other areas hasn’t helped.

In conclusion

All that piled into one make Harris one of the NFL’s best and a player Broncos fans need to appreciate while he’s still playing at an elite level.

At age 29, Harris isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. His instincts, physicality, ball skills and versatility all grade out as special, and are traits that could extend his career as they won’t be hindered with age.

Despite his size and lack of Olympic speed, Harris overcomes his “weaknesses” with textbook fundamentals, a competitive edge that’s second to none, and a focus and consistency that are remarkable.

Even the 25 receptions he has conceded have come by design, almost exclusively results of off-coverage, gifting receivers short completions before closing down with sure tackles.

He’s a rare talent, a small guy who’s stronger and tougher than just about anyone on an NFL field, and has been about as good as they come in 2018, making one of the toughest positions in football look easy.

After missing out on the Pro Bowl last year for the first time since 2013, you might’ve thought Chris Harris, Jr. had fallen off. The tape tells a far different story as he’s been as good as ever in 2018.


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