Jets' David Harris Must Move Like a Butterfly, Sting Like a Bee
During their history the Jets have had good linebackers: Gregg Buttle, Marvin Jones, Mo Lewis, and Bryan Cox. But, the franchise has never had a dominant player at the position.
Whenever it seemed that the franchise was on the verge of fielding a great linebacker, they let him go, like James Farrior and John Abraham. There has never been a Ray Lewis or a Lawrence Taylor on this team, nor a Jack Lambert or Teddy Bruschi.
However, in 2009, Harris has a chance to break with history in a big way.
In 2007, Harris was a standout all season. He recorded 121 tackles and appeared to be in on every single play. Whether a run, a sack, or pass coverage, Harris was all-world that season.
But in 2008, Harris dropped off the radar in spite of consistent and somewhat undeserved praise. Color it a sophomore slump, or just plain bad luck. In either case, Harris was a disappointment; he recorded 76 tackles, one sack, and one blocked pass over 11 games.
There remains high expectations for Harris; in fact, people in and around the Jets organization feel he can become one of the great linebackers of the game. Reportedly, some are sanguine enough to assert that Harris is already a very good linebacker.
However, with Rex Ryan installing his complex 46 Defense from the Baltimore Ravens, Harris' presence and maturation takes on even more importance for this team. It's a hell of a time for a young man to learn a new system, coming off a bad season, but that is precisely where Harris finds himself.
When Ryan coached with the Ravens, middle linebacker was key to the defense's success. Linebackers in the Ravens' defensive scheme were responsible for creating most of the havoc inflicted on opposing offenses, going beyond a simple blitz package.
In Ryan's defense, it is blitz, blitz, blitz, and more blitz. Ryan's athletes are gifted performers whose physical abilities are incomparable.
Ray Lewis, for example, has been a key to the Ravens' defense for so many years due to his ability to beat the stuffing out of just about anyone who comes across his path, in tandem with his athletic talent, to cover tight ends, slot receivers, and running backs.
Such players are expected to be extremely physical and mentally tough. First, they must possess the physical tools to both tackle and sack the quarterback, as well as unleash mercury-like speed to chase running backs in the flat, wide receivers deep in the field, and force turnovers with bone-jarring hits.
Bart Scott, who is now Harris' teammate, was a product of that system and was quite successful at it, recording four straight seasons of 100 plus tackles including a Pro Bowl appearance during the 2006 season in which he recorded 153 tackles. Scott did this while being tagged as "under-sized" by many scouts before he entered the NFL.
In a story from the New York Post online, Ryan emphasized the importance of having players familiar with his system. Along with Scott, safety Jim Leonard and defensive end Marques Douglas will try to teach the Jets' holdovers the ins and outs of Ryan's schemes.
"It's not only that they know the system, but they know how things are done, what the expectations are, and understand that we don't accept anything but that," Ryan said. "For them, it's critical that they have to step up there leading."
How the new philosophy shapes the mind of the 25-year-old in question, who is still virtually a babe in the woods in terms of football years, remains to be seen. That uncertainty intrigues and engages our attention.
Harris has the potential to become a player like Scott, or, dare I say it, Ray Lewis. At 6'2", 243 pounds, he is the archetypal Rex Ryan linebacker; he is physical, fast and, more importantly, dedicated.
What Harris needs to learn to become the complete package is to metamorphose into a better linebacker in coverage. Last season, Harris got burned a few times in coverage down the middle and on slants. He has yet to make his first career interception.
In this new Ryan defense system, it will be imperative for the middle linebacker to move around in space, bump receivers or running backs, and create utter confusion for the quarterback.
Exemplars of successful Rex Ryan linebackers are Bart Scott, who has 16 career passes defended and three interceptions so far, while future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis has 28 interceptions, two for touchdowns.
Keep in mind, pass coverage will be important in the AFC East this year with the always dangerous Wes Welker moving across the middle for the Patriots. Welker has had two straight years of 100 plus catches, a record that should continue this year with Tom Brady back in the fold.
Lee Evans or Rosco Parrish will likely see some time at slot receiver with the addition of Terrell Owens in Buffalo, so Harris will have to become better in coverage really fast if he wants to become a better player.
As a tackler and blitzer, Harris owns the goods, provided his 2008 struggles were an aberration. Teams likely doubled up on Harris last season after his breakout season in 2007; clearly he represented the only real threat in the middle.
Now, with Scott next to him, Harris should get more opportunities to make plays rushing the passer as well as big plays on the running game.
When Harris is on his game, he can be very good. In his first professional start against the Bills in the middle of the 2007 season, Harris recorded 14 tackles and a sack. He appeared all over the field, the only player the Bills had trouble stopping that afternoon in a 13-3 loss for the Jets.
If Harris can regain the form that made him the toast of New York Jets town after the 2007 season, and emerge like a chrysalis from its cocoon to become the beautiful butterfly of toughness and downright nastiness required of great linebackers, then surely the past praise that he received will finally be justified.
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