Bears need vintage Harris
Bears need vintage Harris
Defensive tackle looked like old self against Seahawks but can he play that way against Packers?
The first time the Bears played the Packers this season, Bears coaches thought their team was better without Tommie Harris on the field. The next time the teams play, it's the Packers coaches who no doubt would love for Harris to be off the field.
No one knows whether or not Harris will be a difference-maker in the NFC championship game Sunday at Soldier Field, but he was one against the Seahawks for the first time.
What is significant is the defensive tackle has established that he still is capable of a dominant performance. He had two sacks against the Seahawks, which is 1/2 a sack more than he had all season, and one less than he had all of 2009.
As one pro scout who studied the game tape said, "Where the hell did that come from?"
But is Harris capable of repeating that type of performance?
If he is, the arrows Rod Marinelli shoots will be laced with poison. The Bears' defensive scheme is reliant on a three technique tackle who can penetrate and create pass rush opportunities for others.
Marinelli has been searching all season for a second player who can burst off the line and get upfield quickly to complement Julius Peppers. If Harris can be that man, confetti may be raining on the Bears in the coming weeks.
The Packers probably don't know quite what to do with Harris. Nor do the Bears.
In June, the team owes him a $2.5 million roster bonus, and his 2011 total compensation could be near $5 million. Before Sunday, it seemed as if cutting Harris would be an easy decision.
And it would be foolish to make a multi-million dollar decision based on one game. But if he plays against the Packers the way he did against the Seahawks, hold everything.
What needs to be defined is what Harris is, and why he is what he is. Is Harris the player you don't notice because he is getting blocked or is he the player you can't see because his feet are quicker than the eye?
The tricky thing is Harris has changed over 17 games. One offensive coach and two pro scouts from opposing teams agreed they saw improvement in Harris' game throughout the season.
"Later in the year, you saw more quickness, more of the suddenness off the ball that he had early in his career," the coach said.
Harris lost his starting job for 10 games. He regained it Dec. 12 against the Patriots and has started the four games since.
"I thought he was playing very average early in the year, like a dancing bear at the line," one of the pro scouts said. "You can see now he's playing with better pad level and working the edges. He's getting off the ball fast, trying to finish."
Physically, Harris is not the same player he was a few years ago. Scouts say knee and hamstring problems have taken some of Harris' lower body strength. But he clearly still has enough first step explosion and pass rush savvy to defeat blockers. And he is only 27.
It's possible Harris is regaining effectiveness as he has become further removed from the injuries. At times in the past, Harris appeared to be very protective of his knees. That's not the case so much anymore.
"It seems like the life is back in his legs," the second scout said. "He's not quite the same player he was two years ago, but he's better than he was earlier in the year."
Playing fewer snaps this season and having to prove himself at every juncture probably have been factors in Harris peaking when it's critical.
Harris' problems could have been all below the waist, but they also could have been above the neck. Maybe because he struggled for so long, he lost confidence.
The Bears will tell you they are convinced Harris has been giving good effort all along, both in practice and in games. In fact, they have seen Harris make outstanding rushes throughout the season in practice and in games. They just haven't seen those rushes consistently like they did Sunday, even though they had been expecting them.
If motivation ever were an issue, it shouldn't be in the NFC championship game. Maybe more than anyone, Harris has everything to play for.