Since becoming a starter in late 2002, cornerback Nick Harper has settled
nicely into the Colts defense and the Tony Dungy system. Unlike the guy who
starts at left cornerback for this week's Colts opponent, Nick Harper will never
be confused for a "shutdown" corner. But Harper plays with a
consistency and steadiness that is not easily found amongst cornerbacks. He
excels in the Dungy zone, doing a good job keeping receivers in front and rarely
lets himself get beat deep.
Harper will need to be at his best this weekend because the receiver he will
be assigned to cover, Denver's Javon Walker, is capable of turning in a big play
whenever he touches the ball. The problem for Denver this season, though, has
been getting the ball to him. Walker is averaging about 5 catches per game, but
has seen the endzone just twice (both TDs came in the same game) and has had
just two 100-yard receiving games. His first 100-yard game was at New England
where he caught just three passes but logged 130 yards, largely on the impetus
of one 83-yard TD catch. His second one was last week against Cleveland,
catching nine balls for 107 yards.
Recently, Walker was asked how to fix a Broncos offense that ranks last in
the NFL in touchdowns. His response was, "I'll just say it: Give me the
ball, I want the ball." And then he said, "I don't think I've been as
big a part of the offense as I can be. But I'm just part of it. This isn't
complaining or saying I'm unhappy."
Denver's head coach Mike Shanahan agreed, saying, "We've got to just
keep trying to get him the ball. Obviously, he's making some big plays. Once he
gets that ball in his hands, he usually does something with it." So getting
Walker the ball and letting his playmaking ability take its course is something
Denver wants to do more of. And they took a step that direction last weekend
against the Browns.
Since Nick Harper is at his best in zone coverage, keeping Walker in front
and tackling well is the key to not letting the "playmaker" make big
plays. Harper will sometimes frustrate Colt fans because of his apparent
tendency to give too big a cushion and let too much happen in front of him. But
Harper likely knows he lacks the recovery quickness to make-up the steps needed
if a receiver gets by him, so he compensates by giving that extra cushion.
Harper simply doesn't show a second-gear downfield. Against Walker, Harper must
use his instincts and range well, despite the fact that it doesn't appear that the Broncos receiver has fully -- or at least consistently -- hit his stride yet.
Javon Walker is coming off major reconstructive knee surgery that caused him
to miss practically all of 2005. Many thought it would be unlikely that Walker
would have all his speed back for the first half of the 2006 season, allowing
him to blow by corners like he used to. Some believe that's the reason for
Walker's inability to become a consistent threat in the passing game. Others
blame play-calling or Jake Plummer. Whatever the reason, the fact is that all of
Denver is waiting for that breakout game from Walker, knowing it could happen at
With Nick Harper's knack for keeping plays in front of him, Denver fans may
have to wait another week. But Walker could certainly turn in another nine or
ten catch performance, chipping away for an average of 10-12 yards per catch as
a result of Harper's style, with Walker taking whatever Harper is willing to
yield. But a key to this matchup will be on those few plays when Jake Plummer
will likely try to hook up with his star receiver for a quick six for a deep
pass as he has a few times this season. The winner of those toss-ups will likely
have an important impact on the outcome of this game.