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The craft of a cornerback: How Chris Harris Jr. combines mind and muscle as one of the NFL's best corners
More often than not, what Harris does to cause an incomplete pass comes at the beginning of the play instead of at the end. We asked him to take us through it.
By Ben Swanson Dec 04, 2019

When you're as good at what you do as Chris Harris Jr., you rack up haters at about the same rate as admirers.

That's the price of doing business when your trade is putting a halt to the kind of electrifying plays that are unique to this game. By doing what he does, Harris routinely brings fans of the 31 other teams to their knees as they thought they'd be leaping to their feet.

What he does, though, is not always evident.

Great cornerback play is sometimes hard to see for those of us who aren't trained to see it. Interceptions and pass breakups are the customarily basic tells, but much of what Harris and other top cornerbacks do may not even result in a pass in their direction.

At 5-foot-10, the eight-year veteran doesn't boast the same profile as the conventional shutdown cornerback, but he's no less effective than them, even if much of what he does goes unnoticed.

These are the things that make opposing receivers fume behind their facemasks as they plead for divine intervention from vertically striped deities.

"They know when they see me," Harris says, "they've got a dogfight."


More often than not, what Harris does to cause an incomplete pass comes at the beginning of the play instead of at the end.

"What you do in the first couple seconds of that down pretty much determines whether you're going to win or lose that rep," cornerback-turned-safety Kareem Jackson says. "… He's been able to win those first two seconds throughout the years."

To do that, Harris has honed the mental and physical attributes to a level that has brought him to the peak of his craft. The synthesis of the mind and the muscle is what has made him so good.

"That's what makes him so good: his strength, his play strength, route recognition and being able to diagnose plays before they actually happen," Jackson says. "That's what makes his skill set so unique and it makes him a great player in this league."

It all starts about a week before the game. Shortly after the previous game ends, Harris starts getting ready for the next opponent, diving into film and making notes on formations and wide receivers' tendencies in those formations and in different situations. By the time Wednesday rolls around, Harris' studying is complete.

Four days later, Harris will take the field and play anywhere from about 55 to 80 defensive snaps. Almost 61 percent of those plays will be pass plays.

It always starts the same way.

Harris will track the receiver he's responsible for covering as soon as they break away from the offensive huddle. As he jogs to line up with them, he'll receive the defensive calls from the safeties.

Then he delves into the mental catalog of tendencies he built earlier in the week. He checks the receiver's positioning, or split. He checks the offensive formation.

"I would say the first thing is knowing your job, knowing what you have to do, for one," Harris says. "It's hard to make plays if you can't do your job. The next thing I do, is I try to see formations, see where my receiver's split is, things like that. If your alignment is good, you give yourself a chance to win. If you have bad alignments, you could easily lose. So I always try to make sure I, one, know my assignment, that I have a great alignment and then from there, I just try to be able to process what they're trying to do."

Because of his versatility, Harris can line up inside and outside against receivers equally well, and each positioning brings different challenges.

"It's two totally different worlds," Jackson says. "Being outside, it's outside. But compared to being on the inside, there's a lot of space in there. A guy can pretty much run whatever he wants to run. The throws are a lot shorter, so it's one of those things where you have to be sticky in coverage, like right away. To be able to change your mindset to play outside and play inside, that takes a unique skill set, and not a lot of guys can do it."

If he's inside, Harris communicates more with the linebackers and safeties. How they work in that space as players cross back and forth can be the difference between a broken-up pass and a busted coverage.

As soon as the ball is snapped, Harris works out whether he can cash in on the mental bets he made of what route and play is being run, or whether he has to hedge and react. Being able to instinctually understand and decide as the receiver makes his first moves is what playing the position is all about.

"You can tell he watches film," Colts receiver T.Y. Hilton says. "He's always there, he's going to be in your face and it's going to be a long battle that's very challenging. … He's pretty smart, so he pretty much knows when you line up in the slot what routes you like to run, he likes to get up in your face."

At the same time, Harris starts working out what technique he'll utilize as he reads his opponent's first moves.

"What really sets me apart in the league is to have great fundamentals, and that's what really helps me out on the line," Harris says. "I give them different things on the line — I can inch, I can read-step, slide, kick-step or I can do multiple different things. I've got a lot of different tools in my toolbox to be able to switch up on a receiver."

As receivers like Hilton take their first step or two, they will likely be met with one of Harris' favorite techniques — jamming receivers right off the line of scrimmage, stalling his opponent's route for valuable tenths of a second to disrupt a play.

"Every time [you] go against Chris, you're going to feel his strength," former teammate and current 49ers WR Emmanuel Sanders says.

Former Raiders rival and current Cowboys receiver Amari Cooper agrees with that assessment, and he says that there's another part to Harris' frame that makes him such a tough defender.

"He fights through the whole play," Cooper says. "He's a real scrappy guy at the line, real handsy. One of his biggest attributes is he's not a very tall corner, but he has really long arms. He is unorthodox in that way."

After the first moments working out his chosen technique on a play, it's all about being sticky as the receiver works to try to find any space against him. But if Harris has been successful in his preparation and his play diagnosis, he may have already forced the opposing quarterback to move to his next read, which would require him to sit in the pocket another second or two as the pass rush gets closer.

The ball may not come Harris' way, but an incomplete pass, sack or interception that follows may in part be because of how he played those first two seconds.


The aftermath of a half or a game against Harris is usually the same: reddening faces and furrowing brows.

Yet, usually once it's all said and done, Harris' haters are just those in the stands.

"It makes you frustrated, but at the same time, you kind of want it," Sanders says. "I've been going against Chris for six years, and that guy's made me a lot better. He's definitely made me better as a player, because going against him, you think everybody in the NFL is like him. Then you get in the game and it's so much easier."

For nearly a decade, going up against Harris has been a measuring stick for opposing receivers, and more often than not, he's come out ahead.

In each season since 2012, Harris has graded out as one of Pro Football Focus' top 20 cornerbacks among those who played at least 50 percent of their team's defensive snaps.

No other player can say that.

"It's all-day, non-stop highly, highly competitive football," former Patriots and current Lions WR Danny Amendola says. "It's fun to play against him. He's a great player. … I think he plays his best football in the biggest games. That's a sign of a true elite athlete, and that's what makes him so good."

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