Analysis Notebook: Week 5
Sometimes the grades at Pro Football Focus add context to performances everybody can already see are very good or very bad. The raw numbers support what the eye already told you, and PFF simply acts as another validation. Sometimes, however, the PFF grades run contrary to popular opinion, and players that may have seemed on the surface to have had great games actually end up with pretty poor PFF grades.
We are often asked to justify how we end up with those negative marks when the player can seem to have great base statistics — and usually the answer is because base numbers tell only a fraction of the story. Take LB David Harris from the Jets and his performance against the Falcons on Monday Night Football. Harris, often the darling of a vocal section of Jets fans, seemed to be involved in most plays in that game. He ended with 11 tackles, four additional assists, five defensive stops, and saw a lot of face time on camera… but his PFF grade was firmly in the negative. What gives?
It’s certainly true that Harris made some positive plays in the game, but, as is often the case with linebackers, those plays can be made to look better if the player is helped out up front and gets a clean path to the ball. All three of the Jets’ starting D-line graded firmly in the green, and consequently, every single one of the five stops Harris made was unblocked. He still had to get there and make the play, and he did earn a positive grade for each, but those plays are obviously less impressive than if he had to navigate his way around, or through, a blocker to make them.
The majority of his negative grade came not against the run though, but in coverage. He didn’t give up a whole host of yardage, but in today’s NFL it is often less about the total yardage you surrendered and more about the situational yardage. Did you give up 9 yards on 1st-and-20, or 3rd-and-8? Harris ended the game targeted eight times (not counting the three times he was flagged for mugging Tony Gonzalez), and gave up eight catches.
That in itself is bad, but some of the catches he gave up directly cost the Jets points. So let’s take a deeper look at some of the negative plays Harris had and see if we can identify where the poor grade comes from.
Jets @ Falcons | 1st Q, 01:27
David Harris misses a tackle on a 5-yard reception to Julio Jones that ends up extending the drive and leading to a touchdown rather than field goal attempt.
This play is a good example of the fine margins at play in the NFL. The Falcons are facing 3rd-and-3 from the Jets’ 12-yard line. They elected to try and pick it up with a shallow crossing route from Julio Jones that took him right into the zone of Harris.
Harris read it well and reacted quickly when he saw the danger, jumping up to lay a hit on Jones just shy of the first-down markers. Had he finished that tackle it would have been an impressive defensive stop and forced the Falcons into either a risky fourth-down conversion attempt or to settle for a field goal. Unfortunately for Harris though, he didn’t finish it. Despite being in perfect position and coming at the right angle to hit Jones and drive him back from the first-down marker, Harris fell off the tackle, allowing Jones to extend and dive forward for the first down as Mo Wilkerson made the tackle from behind.
In a matter of fractions this has gone from being a perfect play from Harris to one that cost him and the Jets badly. The Falcons ended up scoring a touchdown from this extended drive four plays later, so this mistake, though it may have added only 2 yards to his coverage stats, cost the Jets 4 points on the scoreboard.
Jets @ Falcons | 2nd Q, 14:57
The Falcons score on a quick shovel pass to Jason Snelling up the middle as Harris is walled off from the play by a block.
Speaking of scoring four plays later, Harris was directly involved in that play as well. The Falcons lined up facing 3rd-and-goal from the Jets’ 4-yard line. The team had almost succeeded in forcing Atlanta to settle for a field goal for a second time inside the red zone, but again Harris conspired to undo the good work on the first two downs and allow the Falcons to get it done.
This play is almost blown up before it gets anywhere near Harris. The Falcons elected to leave Wilkerson unblocked on the play-side of the formation by the first wave, sending blockers through to the linebackers at the second level and waiting for Wilkerson to get picked up by the pulling guard on the backside of the play. Wilkerson read it well enough that he was almost able to make the play, and caused RB Jason Snelling to have to spin away from his presence. In many plays this delay would have been enough for other defenders to get in and make the tackle, but unfortunately for the Jets, David Harris was being blocked one-on-one by a Falcons lineman. Harris has always struggled more than many linebackers in dealing with offensive linemen in his face, and when RG Garrett Reynolds got his hands on him, Harris did what Harris does in these situations — he got walled off.
As you can see, just after Snelling spun away from Wilkerson he had a clean path to the end zone, with Reynolds having not only engaged Harris at the second level, but completely walled him off from the play. It’s certainly no easy task for linebackers to have to fight off larger, usually stronger offensive linemen, but every linebacker in the league knows they have to do it at times, and Harris needed to do a better job of fighting through this block, rather than just accepting he had been taken out of the play simply by being accounted for in the blocking scheme.
Jets @ Falcons | 3rd Q, 09.29
The Falcons convert a 3rd-and-12 as Harris finds himself unable to stop Tony Gonzalez in man coverage
Again the Jets are facing a potential third-own stop, and again David Harris is the reason the Falcons convert and keep their drive alive. This time they’re working from a 3rd-and-long situation, with 12 yards to pick up to keep this drive alive. They send TE Tony Gonzalez down field and run a simple hitch route just beyond the markers. Harris draws Gonzalez in man coverage and shadows him well down field, right up until the moment Gonzalez makes his break.
From this point what had been tight coverage from Harris became an easy completion as he lost at least 2 yards on the break. At this stage in his career Tony Gonzalez is no threat to beat you with his speed, and he is not even particularly difficult to cover tightly in man coverage. The Jets had defenders draped all over him all game long, because his athleticism is gone, but his greatness remains being able to catch those passes anyway. Here Harris makes it far too easy for him, allowing him to make a comfortable catch for a first down by being far too loose in his coverage.
In the end, Harris did make some positive plays, and you could argue that a more lenient officiating crew would have absolved him of blame in some of the illegal contact that he made with Tony Gonzales to earn a trio of penalties, but the negative plays he did make were significant errors, and simply being involved in a lot of tackles doesn’t swing the balance of good and bad in his favor. These three plays alone were each on third down and each extended drives that should have ended on that play.
David Harris may have found himself around the football a lot on Monday night, but not all of it was good.
Follow Sam on Twitter: @PFF_Sam