A pastel-colored gift bag sat in front of David Harris’ locker. At home, a nursery is ready to go. Smiling widely, the Jets linebacker proudly noted that his wife, Jiali, hasn’t had any funny food cravings over the past nine months.
The couple is expecting its first child two weeks from this past Friday, and Harris said he’s ready — as ready as you can be when you’re a first-time parent. He’s just not sure how he’ll react in the delivery room, when the moment finally arrives.
“I think I’ll be ...” Harris said, trailing off. “We’re having a daddy’s little girl, so we’ll see. We’ll see.”
This is one time in Harris’ life when he’ll gladly let his emotions get the best of him, a rarity, at least in his day job. The nucleus of the Jets defense, Harris is respected by his teammates and coaches for his steady play, even demeanor and, as defensive coordinator Mike Pettine put it, being a “calming influence on that huddle.”
That’s precisely what the 6-5 Jets need now, as they play at Washington today in the next step of their playoff quest, needing to rid themselves of inconsistencies on both sides of the ball.
On defense, Pettine said Harris is one of the players they must count on in this final stretch, a piece of “bedrock” for a unit that has at times been uncharacteristically shaky.
“I try to not get too high or get too low, I just try to stay in the median,” said Harris, who leads the team in tackles for the third straight year. “There is so much stuff going on in the middle of game, in different situations, I know I can’t be the one to lose my head. So, that’s always in the back of my mind.”
The fifth-year player was given a four-year, $36 million deal by the Jets before the season in large part for that consistency, though that’s not a trait that necessarily flashes for Pro Bowl voters. Coach Rex Ryan said he “assumes” this will finally be the year Harris goes, but the early returns last month didn’t include Harris among the AFC’s top five vote-getting inside linebackers.
But what does his consistency mean for a proud defense looking to reassert itself when it matters most? Well, Harris is a player nose tackle Sione Pouha — a captain and seven-year veteran — said he looks to for guidance and as a model to not get too high or low after any play. Harris is also on Pettine’s short list of most reliable players, which can sometimes factor into calls in crunch time.
Harris’ weekly grades are excellent, regularly in the mid- to high-90s and among the top two or three defensive players, Pettine projected. Among those the coordinator said he knows he can count on each week are Harris, Pouha, Darrelle Revis, Jim Leonhard and Mike DeVito.
“Week in and week out, he is just solid as a rock, and that is what his strength is,” Pettine said of Harris. “Bart (Scott), for example, might have an unbelievable game and all of a sudden doesn’t play well. If there is a call that puts a certain player at risk, you would rather it be those guys you feel are your ‘Steady Eddies,’ guys that we probably don’t need to help on a particular play.”
Harris, 27, almost never comes off the field, a true three-down linebacker who wears the radio helmet and makes the defensive checks, eliminating and alerting plays based on the opponent’s formation and tendencies. The only times he has missed even a series of plays this season were against Jacksonville and San Diego, due to injuries he fought through.
Harris was questionable for the Week 2 Jacksonville Jaguars game with a listed toe injury, which he said was actually a sprained foot. He played after barely practicing all week, only leaving the game in the fourth quarter when the Jets’ victory was firmly in hand.
“Ligament, bone, joint, it was just one of those things,” Harris explained casually. “I never got an MRI on it, because I felt like it wasn’t that bad. It was uncomfortable.”
Harris sprained his ankle in the first half of the Week 7 game against the Chargers, but after hopping around unconvincingly on the sideline, he convinced linebackers coach Bob Sutton to let him go back in after halftime.
“I watched him warm up with the trainers, and I just said, ‘I don’t think so. I don’t think it’s going to happen,’ ” Sutton said. “So we just basically thought he was going to be done. And then maybe after two series, he said, ‘I can go.’ He’s one of the guys that wants to be in there.”
Each year brings new challenges, and Harris and Sutton identified a handful when they met before training camp. One example: Become a surer tackler. At the bye week, Harris had cut his missed tackles in half from the same point last season, Sutton said. A pair of short-yardage stops at Denver, on third and fourth downs, were keyed by Harris.
Another: Blitz more successfully. Harris has six quarterback hits and three sacks so far this season. Ryan, who singled out Harris’ strong play after last week’s Buffalo Bills victory, praised his fourth-quarter sack of Ryan Fitzpatrick. Harris was in pass coverage, but recognized that pressure had forced Fitzpatrick to move up in the pocket and closed in on him.
Pass coverage is another area Harris is constantly working on, calling the middle of the field not covered by Revis and Antonio Cromartie an area of “vulnerability.” On the 5-yard touchdown Bills receiver Stevie Johnson scored on Revis last week, for instance, Revis was expecting some underneath help in the slant lane. But Harris has made an impact in this area, with a pair of interceptions and four passes defensed.
Over the past month, the Jets have also been working with Harris on a new system to help get personnel groups on and off the field more quickly, an issue that came into focus against New England.
The defensive personnel set for each play is normally communicated from the sideline. But Pettine said they have started to tell Harris the grouping over the helmet radio well before the defensive call comes in, so he can relay it to the huddle and speed up the substitution process. In his role, Harris’ coaches say he stores a lot of information and rarely commits mental mistakes, so they can trust him with this task.
“That’s something David can easily handle,” Pettine said. “David can handle a lot, probably more than the other guys can.”
In Ryan’s opinion, Harris is “leading that defense,” a job that is now at its most critical. The last thing the Jets need, Harris said, is “to slip up again.” Instead, they need what Harris brings to the table.
“When you’re trying to make a run, when you’re trying to be a good team, you need consistency,” Scott said. “He’s somebody we can work off, we can depend off of. He’s one person we can count on.”[/quote]
The Hitman and mangold are my favorite current Jets by far. They just come to work, get the job done, and let their play speak for itself. More and more rare with today's athlete, so glad we were able to lock both them long term.