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Miscast Harper infects Saints' defense

Pro Football Weekly
Miscast Harper infects Saints' defense
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Miscast Harper infects Saints' defense

A circus chimpanzee sitting on a bar stool could figure it out — Saints SS Roman Harper cannot defend the back half of the field.

In the Saints’ first win of the season against San Diego in Week Five, it appeared defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo recognized Harper's limitations, as the strong safety was used heavily as a nickel linebacker in the box and was fairly effective matching up with Antonio Gates in underneath man coverage, frustrating the Pro Bowl tight end with his clingy style.

Injuries to LBs David Hawthorne and Jonathan Casillas prompted the move. With Casillas and Jonathan Vilma returning to the lineup against Tampa Bay in Week Seven, Harper returned to the back end, and Buccaneers QB Josh Freeman repeatedly feasted on the coverage liability. The perfect illustration of this came in the third quarter when Freeman connected with Vincent Jackson on a poorly played 95-yard reception that the tight-hipped, short-stepping Harper grossly undercut from the two-deep position he never should be allowed to play.

Former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams made Harper a star in his pressure-packed defense by not exposing him in space or asking him to cover deep. Williams might occasionally ask him to roll deep in well-camouflaged thirds coverage where quarterbacks would not be licking their chops before the snap at the turkey leg sitting in center field, as Freeman was doing in the fourth quarter.

Trailing 35-21 in the fourth quarter, the Buccaneers opened up the passing game by targeting Harper seemingly every time he lined up in a two-deep shell. On a 3rd-and-25 from the Saints' 27, Freeman lofted the ball into the endzone and the clutching coverman Harper was flagged for illegal contact. Two plays later, it was called on him again.

The Saints held on for their second consecutive victory and are showing signs of flipping their season with overly harsh "Bountygate" punishments coming to an end. To keep the momentum rolling, Spagnuolo must find ways to use Harper more exclusively as the mini-linebacker that he is, scheming him in blitz packages to generate more pressure — something the Saints’ front four has not been able to do on its own — and avoid exposing him in deep coverage, where his heavy feet and grab-and-hold-on style are miscast.

• As the NFL season nears the halfway mark, some of the NFL’s slumping stars have returned to full form and are carrying their teams, none more notably than Packers red-hot QB Aaron Rodgers and Titans blazing RB Chris Johnson. On the flip side, at a time when the Ravens need their quarterback to take charge and replace the leadership of Ray Lewis, QB Joe Flacco responded with one of the worst performances of his career against a very motivated Texans defense looking to make a statement. It was a difficult venue for any quarterback to enter. The Ravens could feel encouraged by the return of OLB Terrell Suggs, who needed only seven plays to record his first sack.

• Steelers OLB James Harrison began to show his age last season. His sluggish movement skill was especially noticeable in his return from a back injury against Cincinnati. Like Brian Urlacher, he still can be an effective performer at 34 years of age because both players are so well-versed in their schemes. However, Harrison is not the same explosive, power-leverage rusher who strikes fear in defenses like he did in his prime.

• What has come to define the Manning name is the ability to respond under pressure when the game is on the line. Peyton Manning showed that attribute last week against San Diego. Trailing 24-0, he came out of the half fiercely determined and his Broncos ripped off 35 unanswered points against a reeling Chargers defense that always seemed two steps behind the masterful orchestrator. On Sunday, after Robert Griffin III shredded the Giants’ defense in a minute and 27 seconds late in the fourth quarter to take a 23-20 lead, it took all of 19 seconds for Eli Manning to keenly recognize Madieu Williams squatting in quarters coverage and exploit the vertical-running Victor Cruz for a 77-yard touchdown in a thrilling finish that marked Manning’s 24th fourth-quarter comeback. Where the Manning brothers are better than all the rest, in company with Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees as the NFL’s elite, is in their preparation and awareness of the weaknesses of their opponents. They know exactly where to attack vulnerable defenses and waste no time pushing the ball downfield.

• The Buccaneers are making a calculated mistake using LeGarrette Blount as their short-yardage back. Following Vincent Jackson's 95-yard catch and run to the Saints' one-yard line in the third quarter of the Bucs' 35-28 loss on Sunday, Buccaneers offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan, who saw Brandon Jacobs used in a similar role for the Giants in his previous stop, gave the ball to Blount on three successive tries. Each time, Blount was slammed by a Saints defense overcrowding the line of scrimmage and suffocating the middle. In a game where Doug Martin played his best as a pro, the supercharged, turbo rookie easily could have bounced outside and found his way into the endzone had he been given the opportunity. He showed he could make tacklers miss all game, as he did sidestepping and running through the arms of Malcolm Jenkins on his 36-yard TD run.

• Like the unselfish, humble team leader that Bills QB Ryan Fitzpatrick is, he took the blame following the Bills’ 35-28 loss to the Titans for throwing an interception on third down in a critical situation. The truth is that the real blame falls on ORT Erik Pears, who was flat out whipped by energetic Titans DLE Derrick Morgan. It’s the job of GM Buddy Nix to make sure the edges are protected well enough for his quarterback to function. By overspending on the defensive line in the offseason, Nix did not address a shoddy offensive line and there’s not enough talent at the OT positions to give Fitzpatrick a chance.  

• Browns rookie WR Josh Gordon has added an explosive element to the Browns’ offense and for the third consecutive week, produced a big-play, momentum-changing TD. However, it was his fourth-quarter drop on a very well-placed ball in the endzone that will be remembered most in the Browns’ 17-13 defeat. Credit Brandon Weeden for delivering the ball in stride with Dwight Freeney barreling down and a beaten Jerraud Powers for getting his hands on Gordon as the ball arrived to help break up the pass. For the Colts to be .500 despite dealing with all their injuries and the absence of their head coach is a testament to the new regime and underrated offensive coordinator Bruce Arians.

• A big part of the reason the Steelers have been so successful under Mike Tomlin is the trust placed in Dick LeBeau and the zone-based ground game that functions at a high level with an average offensive line irrelevant of which running back they plug into the system.

• Losing QB Blaine Gabbert and offensive centerpiece Maurice Jones-Drew is too much for the Jaguars, or any team, to overcome. Replacements Chad Henne and Rashad Jennings are good enough to win with in the short term, but the types of players that teams always will be looking to replace as starters.

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