When Aqib Talib was a junior at the University of Kansas, Chris Harris, Jr was a freshman. They formed an immediate bond and chemistry. Talib mentored Harris and took him under his wing and that season resulted in an Orange Bowl victory for Kansas over Virginia Tech.
Both players made it to the NFL. Talib was drafted in the 1st round of the 2008 draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Harris never heard his name called in the 2011 draft, but through a scrappy tenacity, he earned a spot on the Denver Broncos 53-man roster and contributed immediately.
Now that they’re both in the NFL and playing for the Broncos, the roles have reversed. Although Harris isn’t yet able to be on the field as much as Talib, due to his rehabilitation, he is nevertheless steering Talib in the right direction.
“It’s just a different terminology,” Harris said via Broncos TV. “I’m able to explain things a little bit better sometimes than the coaches can.”
For his part, Talib can appreciate the helping hand.
“It’s a new language,” said Talib via Broncos TV. “Chris will put it to me like we had in Kansas. It’s like this. We play it like this. He helps me out a lot. He’s definitely helped me out in the classroom so far.”
Broncos Country has a lot to look forward to from this duo. Once Harris gets completely healthy, he and Talib figure to be one of the NFL’s best corerback tandems.
Both players excel in man coverage. Talib is in a class of corners that maybe includes 10 players. Shutdown cornerbacks aren’t easy to come by.
“The 28-year-old Talib brings the true shut down ability that was lacking in Denver last season. In 2013 he pulled in four INTs with an additional seven passes defended in 13 games. He finished 12th overall in Cover Snaps/Rec, which measures the amount of times a cornerback is the primary man in coverage relative to how many receptions he allows. Such a stat is a good measure not only of a player’s coverage ability but whether he is doing so while facing a team’s top receiver. He also finished 21st with a 53.5% opposition catch rate and 72.3 NFL Rating for opposing QBs – and all for a 10th best 15.7 yards per reception conceded.”
Talib is often tasked with shadowing the opposing team’s primary receiver. I highly doubt that is going to change in Denver.
Following Harris’ rookie campaign, Khaled Elsayed spotlighted him in PFF’s series “Secret Superstars”. Elsayed talks about how important the slot position is and some of the manifold responsibilities a nickel corner is tasked with executing.
“Playing in the slot requires a special skill set that isn’t just comparable to playing outside, but (in some ways) more complete. You might not be tracking a team’s top receiver, but you’ve got your hands full with myriad problems. You’ve got to deal with a two-way-go, accept larger responsibilities in run defense, and often work your way through a congested middle of the field. NFL teams are catching onto the mismatch (31.4% of all wide receiver yardage came from the slot in 2011) so finding guys who can hold up in this area is turning into something of a priority in a league where 52.17% of plays have at least five defensive backs on the field.”
In his first 2 seasons, Harris saw most of his snaps on defense in the slot. That changed in 2013 when Champ Bailey went down with a foot injury in the pre-season. It forced Harris outside in base package, but he’d slide back inside in nickel.
As Harris continues to rehab, the Broncos #1 draft choice, Bradley Roby, will see plenty of time as the #2 corner. Between Roby, Harris, and Talib, the Broncos could very well have the best cornerback triumvirate in the NFL.
Each player excels in man coverage. When the opposing offense has to deal with Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware creating pressure and a tenacious, sticky secondary to buy the pass rush time, it does not bode well for the QB. And that’s not even taking into account the impact that T.J. Ward will have on the defense. But that’s a topic for another time.
The more I analyze it and talk about it, the more excited I get about the Orange Crush defense of 2014.