By Chad Jensen
ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (247Sports)– The best athletes in the world play in the National Football League. Winning 100 percent of one’s matchups, regardless of the position one plays, is impossible.
Cornerback Chris Harris, Jr. learned this lesson back in 2015 when the Denver Broncos traveled to take on the Pittsburgh Steelers. Harris hadn’t allowed a touchdown in coverage for two years entering that matchup vs. All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown.
When the final gun sounded, Harris’ no-touchdown streak was over. Brown hauled in a whopping 16 receptions for 189 yards and two touchdowns. Both scores came against Harris, and Denver lost the contest.
The Broncos and Steelers have played since that game, but Brown was not available in the AFC Divisional Round playoff later that year, which Denver won. Week 12’s coming bout between the Broncos and Steelers at Mile High will be Harris’ first opportunity to get revenge.
“I didn’t have a good game that night,” Harris said earlier this week in reflection. “It was tough that game. It was pretty much on me that game.”
All bets are off when it comes to covering a receiver of Brown’s ilk, but Harris has vowed not to let his opponent repeat history.
“It won’t be anything like that again,” Harris said.
Complicating matters for Harris this time around is the fact that Denver’s secondary is a far cry from the No Fly Zone unit that patrolled the defensive backfield in years past. Harris has been able to sustain a high level of play, but the defensive backs around him can’t say the same.
Bradley Roby has posted a couple of strong games, but has been the epitome of inconsistent. Meanwhile, free-agent acquisition Tramaine Brock has been lackluster, and the Broncos just cut their most experienced DB in Adam Jones.
If Roby does indeed play — he’s currently listed as questionable — that should take some of the pressure off of Harris, but this is a game in which the young cornerbacks — Isaac Yiadom and Brendan Langley — are going to be tested by veteran QB Ben Roethlisberger. Hopefully they’re up for the task.
But Harris can’t worry too much about what the guy around him are doing. More often than not, he’s going to draw the Brown matchup. It’ll be the best slot corner in the league going against arguably the best receiver in the game.
“You’ve got to embrace it,” Harris said. “I’ve had an All-Pro receiver every week, so it doesn’t stop. You’ve just got to continue, like I said, playing my game and being consistent. I’m hoping to come out with some more turnovers.”
Last week, Harris picked off Philip Rivers — his second pick of the year — which made Harris the only player in the NFL to post multiple interceptions in each of the last seven seasons (dating back to 2012). That says a lot about the caliber of player Harris is, but this week’s matchup vs. Brown offers a unique challenge. Brown has hauled in 62 receptions already for 807 yards and 11 scores.
“He has great route running and they let him play,” Harris said. “They let him play a little bit at the top of the routes. Also what he does, ‘Big Ben’ extends a lot of time for him and then he can kind of freelance and get deep. A lot of his big plays have come from freelancing, so I’ve got to do a great job of plastering and knowing that Big Ben is going to extend time and be able to stay on him.”
On Thursday, DC Joe Woods talked about how the Broncos have to cover Pittsburgh’s receivers because of Roethlisberger’s penchant for extending the play.
“It doesn’t affect what you do in terms of what we’ll call, but guys have to understand that they’re going to have to cover them twice,” Woods said. “He’s going to escape, he’s going to move around the pocket, and you can see receivers running around. Initially, we have to do our job and execute the coverage. When he scrambles, we’ll have to be able to plaster.”
Pittsburgh’s passing game is exceptional, which makes the release of Adam Jones earlier this week all the stranger. As for Harris vs. Brown Part II, make sure you have your popcorn ready, because those two are going to put on a show.