Key Matchup: Harper vs Johnson

Nick Harper (Getty)

Two very physical players will be clashing in the Colts secondary Sunday afternoon as Texans WR Andre Johnson works against Colts cornerback Nick Harper. Greg Talmage breaks down the matchup...

You know things are tough for a quarterback when the local newspaper produces an interactive cartoon like this one.

When he is upright and able to complete a pass, David Carr's favorite target by far is WR Andre Johnson, who has caught 97 passes -- the most in the league -- and was just named to the 2007 Pro Bowl. The next closest receiver in that category is Eric Moulds at 55 catches.

Andre Johnson has the make-up of a No. 1 receiver. The third overall pick in 2003 is a rare talent with exceptional speed, quickness, explosiveness, playmaking skills and body control, as well as great size. A good description I once heard about Johnson was that "he is as big as a small tight end but can burn a defender deep."

Because of his rare athleticism, he creates a lot of mismatches. He can be productive on all three levels in the passing game. He has the speed to close the cushion against cornerbacks in off coverage and a knack for finding soft spots in zones. His size and strength allow him to create downfield separation. He also has good yards after the catch potential because he has the ability to break tackles and punish those who don't wrap-up.

Texans WR Andre Johnson (Getty Images/Al Bello)
But two things keep Andre Johnson from "elite" receiver status. The first being that his quarterback just doesn't have the time to get him the ball deep. The second factor is that he lacks polish and discipline as a route runner.

Johnson usually aligns in the Z position, but can play multiple spots in the formation. So both starting Colt corners and possibly even the slot corner will be required to cover Johnson at various times on Sunday, but its Nick Harper who will likely draw the coverage most often.

Harper will never be confused for a "shutdown" corner. Nevertheless, Harper plays with a consistency and steadiness that is not easily found amongst cornerbacks. He excels in the Dungy zone defense, doing a good job keeping receivers in front and rarely lets himself get beat deep.

Some complain that Harper leaves too big a cushion and allows too much to happen in front of him. But that's just the veteran knowing his skill set well. Harper 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 and keeping everything in-front of him.

Things could get a little physical at times with these two. Harper is tough and plays bigger than his size suggests. So keep on eye on them, especially on the underneath and intermediate stuff. This is where you should really see the two try and outmuscle the other. Johnson will be trying to use his size and strength to get extra yards, while Harper will be looking to stop Johnson dead in his tracks and keep the gains to a minimum.

David Carr is averaging just 6.2 yards per pass attempt. This ranks him 28th in the league in that category. So given that the Texans' vertical passing game leaves something to be desired, it likely gives Indianapolis the freedom to put a safety in the box and only drop one into coverage. That could have an interesting effect on this match-up because it should leave Johnson and Harper in several one-on-one scenarios against each other. This will be fine as long as Harper stays true to form and keeps everything in front of him and tackles with a sound technique.

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