ENGLEWOOD, Colo. (AP) — After the Broncos’ stirring win over the Steelers, Vance Joseph held a game ball up high and called for the man he once wanted to cut.
“Shelby Harris!” Joseph hollered. “What a great week. He had a new baby girl on Friday. And a game-winning interception” in Denver’s 24-17 victory that shook up the AFC playoff picture.
In between, he had a shared sack, a pass breakup and three hard hits on Ben Roethlisberger, one of which led to a second interception and another that was tantalizingly close to a safety after he bowled over center Maurkice Pouncey and dropped Roethlisberger on his back in the end zone.
Cut a half-dozen times by the Raiders, Jets and Cowboys, Harris signed a futures contract in Denver two weeks after Joseph was hired as head coach in January 2017.
Having missed most of the 2016 season after getting cut in camp by the Jets and signing with Dallas just before Christmas, Harris said, “I felt like Denver was my last chance.”
That didn’t translate to making a good first impression, though.
“He’s got about a week before we cut him,” Joseph said he told defensive line coach Bill Kollar then.
“He was just that bad that spring,” Joseph recalled earlier this week. “I guess the light came on, and the guy’s been playing really good football for a year and a-half since.”
Harris heeded his coach’s admonition to start hustling on every single down every single day.
“They might have thought that he’s a week away from cutting, but the next thing you know he’s leading our defensive tackles in sacks last year,” linebacker Shane Ray said. “And he’s made huge plays this year. That says a lot about his character.”
In 2017, Harris played in all 16 games for the first time in his career and was second on the team with 5½ sacks. This year, he’s been especially stout in the run game but can still make his mark in the pass rush.
Kollar said it all began with a heart-to-heart talk with Harris.
“What happens when you get up here, everybody’s good, everybody’s tough. So, to me, you’ve got to take it to next level. When you’re a guy who’s just never made it, dude, you’ve got to change your (stuff),” Kollar said Wednesday. “So, that’s what I told him: ‘You’ve got to work your butt off or you’re not going to make it. I want you working harder than those guys you’re playing across from.'”
Kollar said it was a classic case of pairing determination with natural ability.
“My job is to get it out of them, to do it all the time,” Kollar said. “But I ride everybody’s (behind) on the D-line.”
It turns out Kollar was the perfect headmaster for Harris.
“Bill got me in better shape, I’ll say that,” Harris said. “But really, we do a lot of reps and then he goes and explains it and it kind of opens your eyes a little bit the way he explains it, the certain blocks and the way you’re supposed to take them on. And the technique that he teaches is kind of natural for me. And so, everything’s kind of just fallen into place with Bill.”
Harris also credited his teammates for helping bring out his best.
“The players on the D-line have really helped me out to just become a better player, a better person,” Harris said. “The whole D-line and Coach Kollar have helped turn my game into what it is today.”
Harris said he’s taken tidbits from Derek Wolfe, Domata Peko, Adam Gotsis and Zach Kerr: “I try to take little pieces from all of them and add them into my game, and it’s kind of worked out perfectly.”
Harris’ only other career interception came for Illinois State against Indiana State in 2013.
The only other time he got a game ball came in 2015, when he made a touchdown-saving tackle against the Chargers, when he was also running on adrenalin from sleep deprivation.
“You want to know something crazy? The first time was after I had my son,” Harris said. “And I missed the Thursday practice that time and half of Friday and came back Friday night.”
He missed practice last Friday for the birth of his daughter.
“It was funny. I was joking around with Zach: ‘You know, every time I have a kid, something good happens,” Harris recounted. “It was just like a joke we had going on — and then you saw what happened.”
Harris insists, however, that it won’t go down as his best game in the pros.
“There’s a lot of room to improve,” Harris said. “I want to put together a complete game where I’m going out there and being dominant in the run and dominant in the pass.”
By ARNIE STAPLETON, AP Pro Football Writer
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