Film Room: Chris Harris

Film Room: Chris Harris
Film Room: Chris Harris
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

by Cian Fahey

Chris Harris' reputation has only grown this year.

His fourth season in the NFL wasn't supposed to be so attention-worthy. During the playoffs of 2013, the Denver Broncos cornerback tore his ACL. Suffering an injury at that stage of the season would not only cost him a chance at playing in the Super Bowl, but it was also expected to slow him down at the start of this season. While his offseason work was obviously affected, Harris didn't miss a single game once the regular season began. He was rotated in and out of the lineup in Week 1, but still played a significant amount of snaps.

The 25-year-old's play has drawn media plaudits from everywhere, while the Broncos themselves have acknowledged his importance to their team by signing him to a five year extension worth $42.5 million.

Harris is undoubtedly a quality NFL starter, and the Broncos appear to be getting good value in relation to what he could command as a free agent. Yet any suggestion that Harris is amongst the very best cornerbacks in the NFL is discounting the importance of his situation and his role within Jack Del Rio's defense in Denver. Much of Harris' plaudits this season have come from his Pro Football Focus grade, a number that suggests he is substantially better than that site's second-best cornerback, Darrelle Revis.

However, Pro Football Focus themselves acknowledge that their grades need to be viewed in context. Pro Football Focus is essentially grading how well Harris does with the responsibilities he is given on the field. Therefore, if Harris and Revis (or any other top cornerback) are being given different roles, they can't simply be compared by their respective grades. It's the equivalent of asking one person to take a high school math test while asking the other to interview for a job with NASA.

Within his role, Harris is a very valuable starter for the Broncos. However, that role is designed to minimize the pressures on him by masking his vulnerabilities and highlighting his strengths.

Del Rio's defense doesn't blitz very often. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, they rarely need to be aggressive to compensate for an offense that is putting them in problematic situations. Secondly, having Von Miller, DeMarcus Ware, Malik Jackson, and Terrance Knighton upfront has allowed the Broncos to get pressure with just four pass rushers on a consistent basis. For a cornerback, this is a massively important aspect of the defense to consider.

Because the Broncos rarely rush more than four players, Harris is regularly part of a seven-man zone coverage that allows him to patrol a confined area of the field.

There is value in a player who excels in this particular role, but that value is limited. Playing zone coverage requires all of the pieces of the defense to be responsible for their designated areas, while playing in concert with their teammates. These zones can be larger or smaller depending on the team and the role of the individual player. In zone coverage, the route combinations of the offense become more important for creating space and exposing defensive backs.

As part of the Broncos' seven-man coverage, Harris is regularly put in comfortable positions because of his assignment and the route combinations called by the offense. He often only needs to get his initial positioning right to be in good coverage.

On this play, Harris is lined up to the right side of the defense. He isn't lined up on the line of scrimmage, but he is in position to be aggressive with the receiver during his release if he chooses to. The Broncos are initially showing a Cover-2 look, so Harris has immediate safety help over the top. It must also be noted that the wide receiver isn't lined up outside of the numbers, so Harris has more space outside of him than a boundary corner would typically expect.

Harris doesn't initiate contact with the receiver at the snap. Instead, he overplays an outside release and drops his inside foot backwards while swiveling on his right foot to force the receiver to release inside. Harris has perfectly played this release to put himself on the inside shoulder of the receiver as he runs down the field. While the defense altered its coverage at the snap, Harris was still put in a favorable position. Because of his initial release and positioning in relation to the other defenders in coverage, Harris only has to be concerned with two areas of the field: the deep seam and the deep sideline.

In the above image, Harris only has to cover the red routes. If the wide receiver runs any variation of the yellow routes, he will be running directly to another defender's zone.

Of course, zone coverages have to adjust and adapt to the routes that opposing receivers run, so they don't always get to stay in one area of the field, but with seven defenders in coverage this happens less and less. On this specific play, the receiver attempts to run a deep out route, but Harris is in the perfect position to prevent him from even running through his route. Harris deserves credit for his positioning and technique, but this can't be considered a high degree of difficulty play.

Zone cornerbacks often get disparaged too much. They do have significant value and they do need to show off impressive traits to effectively carry out their assignments. Harris shows off outstanding discipline, quickness, awareness, and decisiveness when playing zone.

Harris' positive plays always begin with his positioning. He understands exactly where to establish his feet within the design of each specific play. From there, he stays aware of the receivers around him and understands how to react to different route combinations. Once he has diagnosed the play, he breaks on the ball with the aggressiveness and quickness of anyone in the NFL. This play against the San Francisco 49ers shows off all of Harris' positive traits in zone coverage. This is a typical play of Harris' season so far.

When Harris is forced to mirror receivers more in zone coverage, he shows off very precise, quick feet that allow him to maintain his balance.

On this play, Harris drops into a deep third in Cover-3. The Jets wide receiver who immediately draws his attention runs a route to which it should be difficult for Harris to react. His out route breaks just after the underneath coverage, so Harris has to be wary of a double move down the field. With his precise and quick feet, Harris is able to comfortably mirror the movement of the receiver without overplaying the out route or being too cautious to give the receiver an opportunity to make a reception.

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In short, this was perfect coverage.

Harris' value within the Broncos defense is high, but it's also largely tied to the quality of the players around him. He is not the kind of cornerback who can be put into any scheme, lined up against any opponent and be expected to succeed. Similar things are often said about Richard Sherman, but the differences between Harris and Sherman are severe. Sherman's skill set allows him to be dominant in man coverage situations, whereas Harris is more reliant on his help.

Using the PSR analysis method, Harris came out with a 65 percent success rate on 217 man coverage snaps for this season so far.

Harris moves around the field a significant amount. Of his 217 man coverage snaps, 91 have come in the slot, 113 at right cornerback and 13 at left cornerback. He covered receivers successfully on 69 percent of his snaps both in the slot and at left cornerback, but at right cornerback, in his largest sample, he had only a 61 percent success rate. Over the past two seasons, while being used somewhat similarly, Sherman has had roughly an 80 percent success rate in each year.

Where Harris does excel is against slant routes. Against 19 slant routes so far this season, Harris has been beaten in coverage just twice.

Versus quicker, slighter receivers, Harris has the footwork and agility to mirror his assignment's movements. Even when faced with such speed and agility as that possessed by T.Y. Hilton, Harris doesn't panic. He trusts his coverage ability and uses his length at the catch point to disrupt the play. Because the Broncos have Aqib Talib and T.J. Ward in their secondary, Del Rio can keep Harris away from matchups that play away from his strengths. Covering Hilton is something he can do, but covering bigger receivers and tight ends causes him major problems.

Those major problems come because Harris can't play physical coverage. He rarely ever presses receivers or initiates first contact close to the line of scrimmage. Harris wants to mirror his assignments while offering them a cushion before breaking on the ball when it arrives.

When he doesn't get to do that, Harris needs help so he can be overly aggressive to push his receiver to a certain spot.

The Broncos' tendency to avoid blitzing also helps Harris in man coverage. Not only can the defense play a huge amount of Cover-2 with man coverage underneath, they can also specifically help Harris against routes that cause him trouble. Because Harris can't jam receivers at the line, he is always susceptible to crossing routes from the slot. Receivers often don't even have to make an initial fake or hesitate before simply running away from him because of the way he lines up. To counter this, the Broncos allow Harris to pass off his assignment to a safety who works forward while Harris drops into a zone over the middle of the field.

This tactic makes it very difficult for receivers to reverse field and lose Harris with a double move because he can be aggressive without having to cover the two-way go. When the offense stacks receivers together, Harris doesn't have to aggressively fight through traffic or cover the initial receiver. Instead he can just jump to a side and push his receiver back infield to a teammate. Even when there is no stack or double move, receivers are simply at a disadvantage because Harris is able to guide them to where he wants them to go or force them to try and create separation in an area he is set up to defend well.

Harris deserves a lot of credit for consistently understanding how to use his safety help, but there's no question that he benefits a huge amount from his situation. This defense makes his assignments significantly easier than they would be in most others across the league.

Despite his lack of physicality in coverage, Harris is a willing and aggressive run defender. Most significantly, his attitude and ability against screen plays stands out on a regular basis.

Harris uses his lack of height against his opposition on these plays as he is able to burst past blockers so low that they can't knock him away from the ball carrier. Harris isn't going to knock anyone out with a big hit, but with good technique he can comfortably bring bigger players to the ground by exploding through the point of contact. His energetic plays come on a snap-by-snap basis rather than one or two every quarter.

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There is no doubting that Harris came at a good price for the Broncos. His value in the current construction of their defense is significant.

The former undrafted free agent is an ideal fit in the Broncos' zone-heavy coverage philosophy, while his ability to match up to smaller, quicker receivers perfectly complements the play of Talib and Ward. Harris may be the fifth or sixth most important player on his defense and he may become less valuable when the Broncos offense is less effective and their pass rush less impressive, but he should remain a valuable starter and a good NFL player even if he has somewhat of a bloated reputation right now.


25 comments, Last at 20 Dec 2014, 6:16pm

1 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

Thanks for this; as a Broncos fan it's good to get a deep critique and opinion of why CH74 is good.

5 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

I registered just to respond to this article because I think it is filled with quite a bit of misinformation.

The first example is by far the most puzzling. Of course Harris has help inside from both Safetys, however that doesn't mean he is playing a zone technique. It is clearly man coverage and he has positioned himself knowing where the safety help is. Harris is showing why he is a BA by getting in the right position and playing it perfectly. (However, it is a zone style cover 3 on the other side of the field)

The article also states "The former undrafted free agent is an ideal fit in the Broncos' zone-heavy coverage philosophy." when it is clear that more man-coverage is being used than zone.

Statements of Sherman as playing more man-coverage than Harris I would have to look into more closely but I would believe to be false. Seattle runs most of its defensive snaps from a cover 1 or a cover 3 and they like to disguise the looks pre-snap. Often though, it looks like cover 1 or even cover 2 man-under and when the snap happens the 2 corners drop like a cover 3 zone. Not to discredit Sherman, who is a fantastic player but I don't see Seattle (or specifically Sherman) using any more man-coverage than Harris/Denver.

Back to Sherman and what is stated directly above, it is Sherman who benefits from rarely playing slot and almost exclusively playing one side of the field. As well as, Seattle using a much more simple defensive scheme that has such talented personnel all over they can show their hand and dare you to attack it.

Saying Harris isn't physical is obviously false. It is true Denver doesn't use a lot of press coverage but that doesn't mean Harris can't or that he lacks physicality.

Claiming Harris is susceptible to inside crossing routes because he doesn't press and then showing an inside crossing route from stacked receiver formation is dubious. The next example isn't a crossing route, more like an in and up. This is a rare play where I think Harris gets a slight bit off balance but he still plays the up and outside knowing the safety is inside. Had this been a crossing route, I would have to agree that Harris would have been burned but that is because of a miss-step that I promise doesn't happen often and isn't part of some trend of coverage he can't play.

It claims that Harris doesn't have to defend a 2-way go when it has been pretty well documented that he can and other corners have stated that Harris excels in that area.

The article tries to claim that Harris benefits from some sort of situation created by the defensive construction that he would not benefit from somewhere else. I would argue that Harris himself creates this "situation" by understanding his role as well as the role and positioning of his fellow defensive players at a level that only the elite can achieve. That is how all defenses are designed, but only the elite can understand and execute it perfectly, snap after snap.

Maybe I am being to nit picky about it. I expect more from FO. I would just roled my eyes and laughed if ESPN had written this cause I already know the quality of the product over there. Actually, if it had been ESPN, I would have been impressed that they even attempted this level of technical reasoning.

6 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

"This play against the San Francisco 49ers shows off all of Harris' positive traits in zone coverage." The entire defense is playing man-coverage but Harris realizes that Kaepernick is staring down the WR (typical of Kaepernick) and as soon as the QB begins to pass, Harris breaks off his man and heads to the target. To describe this play as a Zone is blasphemy.

7 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

Didn't take long for the expected butthurt Bronco fan defensiveness.

like this: "I would argue that Harris himself creates this "situation" by understanding his role" --- a qualitative statement totally unsubstantiated by anything

or this: "I would just roled my eyes" --- broken English, misspelled words

or this: "It claims that Harris doesn't have to defend a 2-way go when it has been pretty well documented that he can and other corners have stated that Harris excels in that area"
--- makes an assumption without providing any proof. basically telling everyone to "trust you" that it has been documented (By who, where?)

In short: shaddup you overly defensive goofball

8 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

I don't understand; whether or not the criticism he posts is valid, you're attacking the poster more than the criticism. That doesn't really sound fair. Please, attack the criticism, rebut the posts, but I, for one, would rather read a back and forth dialogue about the zone vs man coverage and what Harris is really playing than "shaddup you overly defensive goofball."

I'm pretty sure people are at FO for one more than the other?

11 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

Thank you. That is all I ask as well. This is about understanding the game. This is not about me being a Denver fan or not. I'd be upset if I read something inaccurate about any player on any team.

This article does have good stuff too.
The following statement and the .gif that goes with it are dead on. This is a cover 3 zone and Harris plays it perfectly. It is also a play that Sherman makes often. "On this play, Harris drops into a deep third in Cover-3. The Jets wide receiver who immediately draws his attention runs a route to which it should be difficult for Harris to react. His out route breaks just after the underneath coverage, so Harris has to be wary of a double move down the field. With his precise and quick feet, Harris is able to comfortably mirror the movement of the receiver without overplaying the out route or being too cautious to give the receiver an opportunity to make a reception."

12 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

My fault for not editing my comments before posting. However, that does not make them invalid.

I didn't have the time to create my own blog just to prove the objective things I may have said. Sad that you claimed to be of such high intellect but failed to recognize that many of my comments are backed up by the footage already provided, or did you just skip over that part in order to attack me for being "butthurt".

The truth is this article and its backup footage contradict one another.

14 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

In your opinion, the footage supports your comments. In Cian Fahey's opinion, it supports his analysis. He has done a lot over the years to establish his credibility in making those judgments; you haven't. If you "didn't have the time" to do anything other than make unsupported assertions that you know better than he does, then you didn't have the time to earn the credibility to be taken seriously, and you shouldn't expect to be. You could well be right in your position, but you haven't given us any good reason to think so.

16 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

The proof is in the tape that is already posted. Look at it for yourself.

I agree that Cian has done much good and so have FO. That is exactly why this article bugged me, it is not up to snuff compared to what is usually posted here.

Please look at Cians comments, look at my comments and watch a game. Then tell me what you think. I am hoping you actually know something about Xs and Os.

18 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

Again, in your opinion "the proof is in the tape that is already posted." I'm not saying your opinion is uninformed, and I'm not saying you're wrong. However, you're trying to argue that Cian Fahey has misinterpreted the footage, only you're not arguing it. You're only asserting it, and an assertion is not an argument.

20 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

You seem to be bent on arguing semantics.

Cian conducts "analysis" while I only have "comments" even though we both did exactly the same thing: We looked at the tape. Whether CHJ is in man-coverage or zone-coverage is not opinion, he either is in one or he is the other. Look at the tape and decide for yourself. I encourage you to NOT take my "comments" as gospel but I also encourage you NOT to take Cian's "analysis" as gospel either.

You are correct on one thing: I am asserting my comments. Please look at the first example provided by Cian where he states Harris is in zone and provide backup explaining how this is zone coverage. On that play the entire defense plays zone EXCEPT Harris. The defense fakes a cover 2 and then becomes a cover 1 at the snap. Harris knows the defensive call so he knows he has help inside the whole way and appropriately plays outside leverage. If Keenan Allen runs any even numbered route in the route tree then Harris has help, if Keenan runs an odd route then Harris has great position. No matter what happens Harris is playing Allen's every step the whole way, whatever route is run: that is man-coverage.

13 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

Actually, you're wrong on Sherman. The 'Hawks like to play Cover-3 with Sherman in man rather than in zone, though sometimes he's in zone as well; they do keep it simple, but they do not in fact do the same thing all the time. See

19 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

I like that article and think it makes a lot of correct points. I did state the Hawks like to play cover 3 disguised as Cover 1 and all three examples in that article show exactly that. Pre-snap it looks like cover one and then at the snap everyone shifts immediately to their zone. Only one of the three examples shows Sherman playing in man coverage (side note, that man-coverage is never on an island a la Revis. Sherman has help over the top.)

Of course these are just examples, the Hawks have many more plays than this. That article did not prove me wrong for it does not state at what frequency each play is called. Also, 2 of the 3 examples show Sherman in zone while 1 shows him playing man.

15 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

Couple things I would point out. First is Sherman has played much more man coverage this year beginning in game 5 when his counterpart on the opposite side Maxwell went down with injury he was left to shadow Dez Bryant in man the rest of the game so Maxwell's inexperienced sub wouldn't get torched by Dez on the left side. The team continued with this strategy while Maxwell was down depending on the personnel they had manning the other corner spot or whether the opposing team had a dominant #1 receiving threat. Now that Tharold Simon has emerged as a quality corner on the opposite side while a healthy Maxwell has slid seamlessly into the slot role on his return they pretty much have him playing one side again although he did spend a lot of time in man covering Jeremy Maclin two games ago. So I don't see why you would claim it's false that Sherman has played more man than CHJ without having looked at at the tape yourself, which to your credit you admitted to not having done.

Another point is your umbrage over CHJ's lack of physicality. For whatever reason he is not physical and seems to prefer not to be, which is not to say he's not a fantastic corner in coverage with excellent footwork and technique. But the fact that he chooses not to press even on situations where it would appear he could gain a strong upper hand if he did appears to indicate that he's not comfortable doing it, at least not as comfortable than he is not doing it and relying on his technical excellence alone. Maybe he can press but it's hard to be elite at anything that you aren't engaging in very often in order to hone and perfect your craft. So I don't really see the problem with Cian saying he can't press, because for all practical purposes he doesn't when he chooses to defer. If you can point to some tape where he's willing to mix it up in press at an elite level I would love to see it because I've never thought of much of CHJ as a capable press guy either because he never really seems to want to from what I've seen.

Last I gotta ask you what does this even mean?

"I would argue that Harris himself creates this "situation" by understanding his role as well as the role and positioning of his fellow defensive players at a level that only the elite can achieve."

Please don't take this personally because maybe I'm just not sophisticated enough to understand what you're trying to say here but it sounds like a combination of apologetics and raw gibberish to me. It sounds like all you're saying is that he plays his role at an elite level but you're using many more words, but granted we already know that to be true, he's elite in his role. So why are you insisting it would be mutually exclusive to what Cian has said about the coaches assigning him a role that best plays to his strengths and minimizes his weaknesses? They could both be true. Unless you're really trying to say that CHJ took it upon himself to analyze the defense in depth, figured out how best he could mesh with his teammates to accentuate their strengths and minimize their weakness, then instructed Del Rio how he should be deployed like some morphable plasticman comic book mastermind that could shape shift his skillset and eliteness to whatever was called for in order to plug the biggest weaknesses on the defense ... which is sort of the vibe i get when reading what you said (which is really over the top IMO) otherwise I don't get what you're trying to say about how he "created" his role.

17 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

First off, thank you so much for knowing something about the game and responding in an intelligent manner.

I admit that I have not studied Seattle in depth this year and so comments about Sherman are based on how he has typically been used in the past. Sherman is a great player and I don't doubt that he can't play outstanding in man-coverage. I have in fact seen him play great man-coverage but Seattle seemed to like to play much more zone. Nice to know Tharold Simon has risen to the challenge, I was high on him in the previous years draft but Denver took Kayvon Webster instead.

I agree that Harris almost never plays press. Pressing isn't the only way to show physicality. I encourage you to watch this coming Monday night game and focus on CHJ. You will most likely never see him press but I bet you will come away thinking that he is still physical with his WRs even without pressing. (CHJ learned from Champ Bailey who also almost never pressed but was still physical). EDIT: Look at the play above against the 49ers. CHJ brushes off 250 lb Vernon Davis and lays a hit on 220 lb Boldin, making him fall backwards. CHJ can be physical even without pressing.

The last comment of mine you quoted you over-thinking (possibly my fault for how I worded it). Cian makes it seem as if CHJ has major holes in his game that are masked by JDRs defense. He basically states the JDR defense is CHJ's crutch and without it Harris is not that good. I was simply trying to express that CHJ (like Revis and Sherman) is so good that they understand all the working pieces of the defense that has been called and are good enough to take advantage of that. All the elite players in the game (Cornerback or other) have this quality.

21 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

He basically states the JDR defense is CHJ's crutch and without it Harris is not that good.

I disagree with this interpretation. He is saying that CHJ is a great player, but is arguing that the holes prevent him from being one of the best in the league. The whole conversation is really about the distinction between being great and being elite. Is Chris Harris great? I think we've established that -- no system will make an average CB look great (in my opinion, at least). But is Chris Harris elite? That's the harder question.

24 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

No thank you for your thoughtful reply and insight. I've really appreciated your contributions to this thread and I'm definitely looking forward to watching CHJ play again Monday. GL and hoping Manning recovers from whatever malaise has been ailing him.

3 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

On a more technical level it would be nice if you could set the gifs to start on mouseover and if you could identify where Harris is on each gif.

4 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

I subscribe to PFF but I take their passing grades (both offensively and defensively) with a large grain of salt. They do their initial grades using the TV broadcast, so basically if a guy is not thrown at they can't see him and aren't grading him. That leaves a really large gap in evaluating CB (and receiver) performance.

9 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

Regardless of Harris' value individually, I'm wondering where the Broncos are finding the money. According to Spotrac, right now the Broncos have about a $76M cap hit associated with their highest-paid eight players for next year (roughly, 21.5M-Manning, 10.6M-Clady, 9.8M-Miller, 8.7M-Ware, 7.8M-Ward, 7.0M-Talib, 6.3M-Vasquez, 5.0M-Sanders). That leaves maybe $70M for the remaining 45 players on the 2015 roster, and that's not even counting Harris' salary or salaries for free agents Demariyus Thomas, Terrance Knighton, Rahim Moore, Orlando Franklin, and Julius Thomas.

Is there something about Peyton Manning that encourages teams to build extremely top-heavy rosters?

25 Re: Film Room: Chris Harris

Denver has the money because they are a young team that essentially doesn't have a middle class. The rest of their players are young ascending players on their first contact (most of the players you mentioned above) or veteran bargains. Next year their team will be different because they will definitely be losing some of the players listed above. My guess is that they keep DT, Knighton, Trevathan, Montgomery and Franklin while Julius Thomas and Rahim Moore end up elsewhere. Welker may come back if he's willing to take a minimum deal with incentives. However, they are absolutely out of the big $$$ FA market next year.

Regarding Denver's defensive scheme, they play more man coverage than zone. If having a safety over the top and rushing four is what qualifies as zone, then Seattle (who plays predominantly man covg) is a zone team too. One of Chris Harris' strengths is that he can play man without having to Press, which is why he is effective both outside and in the slot. Denver got a great deal on him and was able to apply a lot of the money towards 2014 which may enable them to keep an extra one of their talented upcoming free agents next year.

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