Even David Harris misses sometimes, but he’ll be back, and it will probably hurt

BenJarvus Green-Ellis and David Harris. (nfl.com)
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Each time the Jets or Giants play a football game, Capital will write about a home-team member who took part in it. This post is about David Harris, who played linebacker in the Jets’ 30-21 loss to the New England Patriots.

This is news to nobody: The Jets, who have lost three straight games and are now 2-3, have some major problems. One of them is stopping the run.

Last year, the Jets were the league’s third-best team in both total rushing yards allowed and yards allowed per carry. This year, they rank 27th and 18th in those respective categories, and are giving up more than a half-yard more per carry than last year (4.2 to 3.6).

This means that David Harris, the Jets star middle linebacker who this past offseason signed the biggest guaranteed contract ever for a player at his position, has not looked his best this year. Yesterday’s loss to the Patriots was no exception. Yes, he led the team in solo tackles with seven, sacked quarterback Tom Brady on one of his many blitzes, and even made the front page of the New York Post with his helmet-removing tackle on Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. But as the middle linebacker, whose primary responsibility is stopping the run, Harris was the face of a defensive effort that allowed 152 yards, around 41 yards worse than the NFL season average.

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Yes, the nature of team defense makes it difficult to separate a poor individual effort from a poor team one, and yes, the Jets’ defensive strategy yesterday emphasized stopping the pass at the expense of stopping the run, which resulted in Harris’ having to contend with blockers in his face all game. But Harris was at the scene of the crime on numerous successful Patriots running plays.

There he was in the first quarter, getting cut-blocked by a guard on an eight-yard run by BenJarvus Green-Ellis, which took the Patriots to the Jets’ three-yard line. On the next play, Harris got blasted out of a hole by a pulling guard, allowing Green-Ellis to slam through for the score.

In the third quarter, with the Patriots on the verge of a touchdown that would give them a 10-point lead, Harris tried to shoot an inside gap, and was consequently caught in traffic as Green-Ellis bounced his run outside before running into the endzone through Harris’ flailing arm-tackle.

Then, on the first play of the Patriots’ last drive, when everybody in the stadium knew the Patriots would try to run the ball to wind down the clock and preserve their lead, Harris was bulled for extra yards by Green-Ellis on an eight-yard gain that set the tone for a drive on which Green-Ellis amassed 59 yards on 10 carries, clinching the game for the Patriots.

Uncertainty about the fluid nature of responsibility on a football field notwithstanding, yesterday was not a good day for Harris and the Jets. Still, it’s important to note that such days have been rare since Harris exploded onto the scene in Week 8 of 2007, his rookie season. Making his first NFL start in place of the injured star Jonathan Vilma, Harris made 17 tackles. The next week, he made 24. By the end of the year, Harris had earned a spot on the NFL’s All-Rookie Team, compelling the Jets to trade Vilma and make Harris the undisputed starter.

What impressed coaches was Harris’s smooth transition from the 4-3 defense he played at the University of Michigan to the Jets 3-4 scheme, which the Jets kept through a coaching change (albeit with major modifications). In a 4-3, linebackers don’t have to contend as much with blocking offensive linemen because they have defensive linemen playing in front of them. In a 3-4, linebackers aren’t as “protected.” (This was on vivid display yesterday.) Vilma had established himself in the Jets’ old 4-3 scheme, but at 230 pounds, he didn’t have the requisite bulk to fend off blockers. Harris, at 250 pounds, did.

He also had the brains and the instincts, Lloyd Carr, Michigan’s longtime coach, told me over the phone last week.

“I don’t think there’s a defense he couldn’t play,” Carr said. “The adjustment to that system was less than for some guys. You have to remember, this is a really smart guy. From the first day he got [to Michigan], he had this innate ability to diagnose a play and where the ball was going.”

Harris also had the leadership qualities expected of a middle linebacker, the so-called “quarterback of the defense.” The Jets defense, from architect Rex Ryan on down, is full of players whose big talent is matched by their big mouths. In the middle of all this noise is Harris, the classic strong, silent type.

“I wouldn’t exactly say he’s ‘introverted,’” said Carr. “When he’s got something to say, he’s gonna say it. It’s just that it’s not gonna take a lot of words for him to say what he wants to say.”

Added Rueben Riley, a childhood friend of Harris’ in Grand Rapids, Mich. who played with him at Michigan, “He’s not a vocal type of guy on the field who’s gonna pop off [to an opponent]. He’s the type of guy where it’s like, 'I see you, I’m coming back, and we’ll meet again.'”

Riley pinpointed a serious knee injury Harris sustained early in his Michigan career as a turning point in his career.

“With all the work he put in rehabbing, I saw a different David Harris after that,” he said. “He came out with an explosiveness I’d never seen from him. We started calling him ‘The Black Hammer’—it was an old ‘70s Blaxploitation vibe I wanted to give him. He wasn’t just tackling people. He was hitting people violently.”

With the Jets, his nickname is more politically correct: “The Hit Man.” Still, Harris isn’t defined by a few thunderous hits here and there, but rather the steadiness he has displayed in New York since 2007 that gives Jets reason for optimism that both he and the defense will rebound from this recent poor stretch.

Said Carr, “The kid is so consistent. And, I mean, that’s the thing. He’s as consistent as any person I’ve ever known. He was consistent in the classroom, he was consistent on the field, and he’s consistent as a person.”