Chris Harris is quietly becoming one of the best cornerbacks in the league.
The Denver Broncos ruled out star cornerback Champ Bailey for Sunday's game against the New York Giants on Friday, meaning Chris Harris will again get the start in his place and Tony Carter will be the team's nickel cornerback. Without Bailey in Week 1, the Broncos didn't have too many issues, but the Baltimore Ravens also didn't have many credible receiving options.
Eli Manning has several good receivers, including Hakeem Nicks, Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle and tight end Brandon Myers. Louis Murphy is also a capable receiver if the Giants want to force the Broncos to use their dime packages.
It's hard to beat Manning with so many weapons (sound familiar?) and that's just what the Broncos will have to do on Sunday in New York. The Broncos weren't perfect on defense against the Ravens by any means, but with a few tweaks the secondary looks like a unit that can slow down the Giants.
Everyone knows it's a Peyton vs. Eli game, but last I checked neither one plays defense. Eli will have to beat Denver's defense to win the game.
Be a Playmaker
One of the biggest plays of the game against the Ravens in Week 1 was when Harris intercepted Joe Flacco to set up the Broncos' first touchdown. At the time, the Ravens had a 7-0 lead and an opportunity to take a two-score lead. Instead, Peyton Manning threw a strike to Julius Thomas to tie the game on the first play after the interception.
There was nothing particularly special the Broncos did that confused quarterback Flacco on the play, nor was it a particularly bad decision by the Ravens' quarterback. Sometimes a player just makes a great play.
Brandon Stokley ran from slot left on a short cross and the Broncos were playing Cover 2 Man out of their nickel defense. Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie actually drops into the deep zone, with strong safety Duke Ihenacho showing blitz and hustling out to cover the outside receiver (Inverted Cover 2 on this side of the field).
Harris was the slot cornerback, just like he would normally be if Bailey were in the lineup. Carter came in to play outside and the Broncos gave him deep safety help (more on that later).
Harris dives in front of Stokley to make the interception. Harris took a risk and it was worth the reward in this instance, but had he missed Stokley probably makes the catch with a lot of room to run.
Smart players know when to take calculated risks and that's exactly what Harris did on the play. Harris knew Stokley was running in the direction of his help. Knowing where the help is on any given play is one of the most vital things every cornerback must learn.
Being aware of the player you are covering is also important. Harris knew Stokley wasn't a big threat to take it the distance after the catch and the help would be able to stop him after a decent gain.
Harris was processing all the information the Ravens were giving to him from the instant they lined up to the point he decided to dive in front of the pass. Harris was able to combine his natural instinct with football intelligence and the result was a big play.
At another point in the game, defensive end Robert Ayers dropped into coverage on a zone blitz and went for the interception on a swing pass to tight end Dallas Clark. Ayers just missed and Clark turned it into 32-yard gain on a 3rd-and-12.
One of the reasons it was such a huge gain was that Ayers didn't have any help behind him. No one expects a defensive end to have a good feel for his help in coverage, but he should have understood the situation. It's a good example of what can happen if you take too much of a risk.
Against the Giants on the road, the Broncos may need to take fewer risks. Big defensive plays come with a higher degree of difficulty and a lot more risk because good receivers can take a short catch and turn it into a big play.
The Broncos will still have safeties and linebackers showing blitz and dropping into coverage to try to confuse Eli, but they may have to rely on a mistake to get turnovers. To take advantage of a mistake by a good offense, the Broncos can't make mistakes in coverage on defense.
Denver's secondary had a great performance against the Ravens, but great doesn't mean perfect. A good quarterback with plenty of weapons at his disposal is going to exploit any mistakes made in coverage.
Blown coverage against the Giants could equal a touchdown, so the Broncos need to be near-perfect on their coverage assignments. Trusting your teammates and communication is usually vital to getting things right because offenses are going to do their best to confuse the defense.
A good example of such a blown assignment came on a 29-yard pass from Flacco to Torrey Smith on the Ravens' first touchdown drive. Rodgers-Cromartie blew a coverage assignment that resulted in a first down for the Ravens on 3rd-and-6, extending the drive that would ultimately put the Ravens up 7-0.
As you may notice, Harris tried to communicate to Rodgers-Cromartie the coverage before the snap and was clearly upset after he tackled Smith. Meanwhile, Rodgers-Cromartie was caught covering air.
There are also other types of issues the Broncos are going to have to fix if they want to shut down the Giants on Sunday. In particular, the Giants might target Carter in coverage just like the Ravens did with some success.
Tony the Target
Carter is actually Bailey's replacement and that puts a target on his back. Harris gained more responsibility, but Carter is the player that sees the biggest boost in playing time with Bailey out.
The Ravens didn't waste much time targeting Carter. According to ProFootballFocus (subscription required), Carter was targeted 10 times and allowed five receptions for 97 yards—all team highs.
On one play, Marlon Brown got a clean release at the line of scrimmage against Carter and made the wide-open catch in front of Ihenacho for a first down. Ihenacho could have had a quicker reaction and he perhaps gave too much cushion, but Carter also drifted away from Brown as he sank into coverage for no apparent reason.
Against the Ravens, strong safety Ihenacho blitzed frequently and was also heavily involved in run support. If the Giants force the Broncos to give Carter a lot of help, that's going to hurt their ability to support the run and put pressure on Eli with their blitz package.
Notice on this play how Smith gets a clean release to outside and gains a full step on Carter. Ihenacho diagnosed the play quickly and came over to deliver the big hit, but the damage was done. Without disrupting the route, Carter didn't have the speed to stick with Smith.
The Giants would be foolish not to attack the deep sidelines on Carter's side until he proves he can disrupt routes and stick with receivers deep. If Carter doesn't have a better game against the Giants, it could be a tough day for Denver's defense.
A Man-to-Man Plan
Despite some warts in their Week 1 performance, the Broncos have the physical talent in their secondary to stick with the Giants' receivers in man coverage. Not many teams have enough quality cover guys to legitimately slow down a top passing attack this way.
Against the Ravens, the Broncos had success using man coverage with either one or two safeties. Smart receivers are going to find holes in zone coverage, but offenses have to get a little more creative to beat a team that can cover well man-to-man.
As long as the Broncos can get Harris on Cruz, Rodgers-Cromartie on Nicks and Carter on Randle then man-to-man coverage could be a great option for the Broncos on Sunday. Last week, the Dallas Cowboys used a lot of Cover 2 Man defense against the Giants with Cover 2 and Tampa 2 used in the red zone.
Except for a few breakdowns, the Cowboys did well with their trio of Morris Claiborne, Brandon Carr and Orlando Scandrick at cornerback. The only time Cruz got loose was when the Cowboys were in zone and safety Will Allen drew the coverage assignment.
The Giants attacked Claiborne on the outside and looked for Cruz when a safety drew the coverage. The Broncos should give Cruz a heavy dose of Harris, which means the Giants will probably target the lesser of the two cornerbacks on the outside—that's Carter.
If Denver's secondary performs like it did for the majority of the game against the Ravens, it has a chance to leave New York with their second win. The few coverage issues are easily correctable and the Broncos will have to design a game plan to help Carter, but they are fully capable of making Eli's life difficult.