When first round pick Johnathan Abram’s rookie season was cut short with a shoulder injury, the Raiders were left to wonder about the state of their safety position.
After unsuccessful attempts to play Daryl Worley at safety in Week 2 and Curtis Riley in Week 3, ex-CFL player Erik Harris got his chance in Week 4 and never looked back.
Harris was previously known as special teams ace who was simply trying to crack the starting lineup. Usually, special teams players are protected in the scheme when they make the transition to playing full time. Nothing could be further from the truth in the case of Harris, who has proven to be the team’s most reliable defensive back in coverage this season.
When you think of safety play, chances are you think of a rangy defender who gets a jump on the ball and defends deep passes. Harris has showcased his range this season and shows the instincts to excel in this role.
In Cover 1, safeties need the range to make a play on a ball thrown to the sideline. Harris gets a jump on this pass in the London game, breaking on the route almost a full second before the QB lets go of the pass. When he arrives, he brings bad intentions and lays a huge hit. Somehow, the receiver caught this pass. But 9 times out of 10 this is an incompletion.
Harris has played even better in deep half coverage. The Raiders have their safeties play deep halves in Cover 2, Cover 6, and 2-man. This example comes from a 2-man look against the Lions and Harris drives on the bender route from the TE, knocking this ball loose. Harris does a great job of anticipating where the QB will go and lays bone crunching hits like this almost every game.
Cover 4 looks
The Raiders play quite a few variations of quarters coverage in their split-field match defense. Harris has been a big reason why this coverage has been so effective for the Raiders defense this season. His range and instincts come into play in these situations, but also his ability to diagnose route concepts and make split second decisions sets him apart in this coverage.
In a true cover 4 look against Bears, Harris lets the vertical route from the No. 1 go, opting instead to jump the crosser coming from the other side of the formation. Harris comes to balance and fixes his vision on the QB while shuffling to stay in phase with the crossing route. When the safety sees the body language from the passer aiming further downfield, Harris comes off his initial coverage and without even knowing where the receiver is behind him, makes a play on the ball and deflecting the pass.
This is another Cover 4 variation where Harris is responsible for the vertical routes from the No. 3 and No. 2 receiver to the passing strength. This coverage is called “stress” and is a common trips check in Cover 4. What makes this a ‘wow’ play from the safety, however, is that once the No. 3 receiver goes underneath, Harris disregards the vertical from No. 2 running a slot fade when he realizes the QB is going for the backside post. Harris is already breaking on the route before the ball comes out and comes up with another pass defensed.
We saw the culmination of Harris’ ability to play split-field coverage in the Thursday night game, an effort that included multiple pass breakups while in that defense. As mentioned in the previous Raiders Film Review article, Harris is disguising a Cover 2 look that eventually turns into quarters coverage. We know it can’t be Cover 2, because Harris is taking a flat-foot read instead of back pedaling into the deep half. It is almost as if he knows exactly where the ball is going when he sees the route combination, breaks, and comes down with an INT.
The Raiders are a heavy man coverage team. A little over 40 percent, according to Sports Info Solutions. When they play Cover 1, usually it’s Harris who is responsible for the deep middle. However, NFL defenses need to change these tendencies up occasionally in order to keep QBs guessing. Harris can play a little man coverage as well.
This rep from the Packers game shows a brilliant disguise. Harris starts the play at 15 yards deep. When the nickel corner blitzes off the edge, Harris is responsible for man coverage in the slot. He drives on the out route, but is able to maintain good position when the receiver turns up the sideline. The QB is forced to adjust and throw the ball back-shoulder because of the coverage from Harris and the result is an incomplete pass.
In the redzone, Harris is responsible for the vertical route in this goal-line coverage. He gets his hands on the receiver for two reasons.
- Getting physical with a WR throws off the timing of the route and;
- When his hands are on the WR, it allows him to have vision the QB, because the contact tells him where the route will go.
Harris undercuts the route and notches yet another pass breakup.
We’re not done yet. There are occasional times where Paul Guenther will ask Harris to play underneath zones or brackets. These are curveball coverages, because the Raiders don’t use them nearly as much as the examples above. The fact that Harris is essentially featured in these coverages shows a high skill level and the confidence the coaching staff has in him.
This example from the Colts game came when the Raiders were intent on taking away the crossing routes underneath from the Colts offense. The Raiders defense is in Cover 3 and Harris has the Curl/Flat responsibility to the backside of the coverage. The RB runs a chute route to the opposite flat and we see Harris lay the wood again. His ability to anticipate show up time and time again throughout his film.
His first interception of the year came on a play where he had bracket coverage on the TE to the short side of the field. When the receiver went inside, Harris zoned off his drop, read the eyes of the QB and made a fantastic play to not only haul in an interception, but take it back to the crib. At this point, Harris is proving this play was no fluke.
Harris consistently has vision of the QB and makes plays on the ball even without knowing exactly where the receiver is. Players who do this consistently must have fantastic film study habits and their preparation helps them make instinctive plays.
Harris isn’t your average coverage safety — he is capable of taking players out of the game with vicious hits. His combination of size, range, and hitting ability are a rare blend even by NFL standards. He is the strongest part of this young secondary and hopefully a future building block for this defense for years to come.