by Cian Fahey
Percy Harvin is a special, but polarizing, player. Ever since the Minnesota Vikings selected him with the 22nd overall pick of the 2009 draft, he has been one of the most intimidating yet confusing players in the league.
Harvin's intimidation isn't born out of his production. After five seasons, the 25-year-old has just 290 career receptions for 3,379 yards along with 115 rushing attempts for 730 yards. He has 29 total touchdowns (five kick return scores) and seven fumbles. The oft-injured receiver averages seven touches per game for just 71 yards from scrimmage and 0.5 touchdowns.
Instead, Harvin intimidates defenders because of his explosion, strength and versatility.
Harvin was an offensive weapon long before Denard Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars brought that term to sardonic relevance. Since his first appearance during his rookie season, Harvin has shown off the ability to excel from any spot on the field. He runs crisp enough routes to line up in the slot and work the middle of the field. He has enough strength to line up in the backfield and carry the ball between the tackles. He has enough explosion to turn screens or deep routes into huge gains.
All Harvin ever needs to succeed on the field is an opportunity to get the ball.
Yet, despite his undeniable talent, many can't look past his underwhelming production and his inability to stay on the field. Some believe that giving him such a big contract was a major mistake by the Seahawks. Others believe his talent made that investment a worthwhile risk to take. Last Saturday, when Harvin made his second appearance of the season, both sides of the argument gained ammunition.
Harvin sustained a helmet-to-helmet hit from safety Rafael Bush early on that sent him to the sidelines. He would eventually return, but after landing hard in the end zone during the second quarter, he would be ruled out for the game. Harvin finished the game with four touches for 30 yards. Therefore, it's easy for those who don't believe that Harvin can stay healthy and produce to find evidence for their point of view.
Yet his impact on the game was obvious even though he wasn't on the field for very long. He didn't start the game, but he came in on the second offensive play for the Seahawks. Once he came on the field, the Saints defense immediately accounted for him and they were very aggressive to stop him on the quick bubble screen.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell called this play in too obvious a situation. As the above image shows, the Saints defensive backs began moving towards Harvin as soon as Russell Wilson began his throwing motion. When the receiver caught the ball, the Saints had three defenders waiting to tackle him. He had nowhere to go.
While this play wasn’t productive at the time, Bevell was able to use it against the Saints later on.
After a turnover from the Saints offense, the Seahawks took over deep in New Orleans territory. Again, Harvin is lined up as the interior slot receiver to the left. The Saints are in man coverage, with safety Roman Harper lined up across from Harvin.
At the snap, Harvin runs the same screen route that he ran early in the first quarter. This is an ideal situation to throw the ball to Harvin because the defensive back covering him started the play more than 10 yards away from him. That defensive back, Harper, isn't notably athletic. So Harper is aggressively trying to close the space as soon as Harvin begins to move. Harper doesn't take his eyes off of Harvin so he doesn't recognize that the Seahawks are running the ball.
Marshawn Lynch was initially held up by his own offensive lineman but Wilson continuing his fake kept Corey White out wide. This put Lynch into space over the middle of the field. Harper is now trying to recover his position, but there is a huge gap between him and the defender directly in front of Lynch.
Lynch skips past the initial defender and Harper has no chance of pulling him down from the side. Lynch bounces his way into the end zone for what became a relatively easy touchdown run.
If Harper had felt comfortable about his assignment, then he may have recognized the run earlier. Had he done that, he could have put himself in a position to gang tackle Lynch with the other safety who initially missed Lynch in space.
Similar plays happened during Harvin's only regular-season appearance of the year.
Harvin lined up in the slot to the right on the above play. He quickly gets down the field and immediately attracts the attention of Harrison Smith. Smith was supposed to get more width, but he stays on Harvin too long and allows Wilson to find Doug Baldwin in the corner of the end zone for the touchdown. The time that Smith was distracted by Harvin allowed Wilson to fit the ball into a tight window and was the difference between a touchdown and a broken-up pass.
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Much like other elite talents, Harvin is able to open up the offense for his teammates. He creates space and makes defenders doubt themselves. During his time as the primary focus of Minnesota's passing attack, defenses could focus on him without worrying about being punished by other receivers. Adrian Peterson was the only other credible threat.
The Seahawks have enough offensive talent to make defenses pay for focusing too much on Harvin, and he should be able to excel individually when given opportunities. Considering his absence and the big hit he took early in the game, it was no surprise that Harvin was a little rusty against the Saints.
Still he made a few plays with the ball in his hands.
He showed off his impressive acceleration with this sweep from a wide receiver position. Harvin got the edge behind good blocking from his receivers on right side of the offense. None of Seattle's other receivers can run this play as effectively as Harvin because they don't have the same acceleration.
This further opens up the playbook because the Seahawks can motion Harvin into the backfield and execute option runs with Harvin and Wilson. For a defense that is setting up for a five-receiver formation, that is a nightmare.
Late in the second quarter, Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan decided to go with an aggressive blitz on third-and-8. Ryan sends seven defenders after the quarterback with just one deep safety. This means the three receivers to the right will need to beat man coverage. Each is facing press at the snap and, again, Harvin is lined up on the inside. With one quick, decisive step he begins his route.
Harvin is working against White and he has already beaten him at this point. White isn't in a terrible position, but Harvin is running into space because the deep safety is being held back by the other two receivers running parallel to the sideline. He will be forced to turn his head away from the quarterback, at which point Harvin will be able to manipulate him in space.
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Wilson recognizes that the defender won't be able to see the ball coming if he throws it, so he lofts it into the air. Harvin initially keeps moving across the field, but he adjusts back inside before attacking the ball at its highest point. White could never leave his feet because of Harvin's movement and because he didn't know the ball was coming. This meant that Harvin was able to coral the ball before White could get to it. White hit the ball as Harvin was coming down with it, but the receiver was too strong for him to knock it out.
Although White isn't an elite cornerback, what Harvin did on this play was still very impressive because it is exceptionally difficult to defend. Getting a better jam on him at the line of scrimmage would have been ideal, but that's very difficult to do with a receiver as quick and strong as Harvin. Outside of disrupting the timing to allow the pass rush to get to Wilson, the only other hope for the defensive back is if Harvin doesn't catch the ball at its highest point.
Against the San Francisco 49ers, Harvin's ability to beat man coverage on blitzes and his ability to turn quick, short passes into bigger gains would be crucial for the offense. The last time he faced the 49ers, when he was a member of the Vikings, he had 98 total yards. That may not seem like much, but no receiver currently on either roster has had that much success in a single game against their NFC Championship game opponent.
The only question mark is his health -- as has been the case throughout his career.