Al Harris

Is Al Harris on his last legs with the Packers?

Following yesterday’s news that Green Bay Packers’ defensive end Aaron Kampman will move to outside linebacker in defensive coordinator Dom Capers’ 3-4 scheme, there was news today questioning whether cornerback Al Harris is fit for the scheme, and suggesting defensive tackle Justin “the Big Bust” Harrell will move to defensive end.

We’ll start with Harris, who has been more a part of the Packers success over the years than Harrell will likely ever dream about.

Harris is adept at bump-and-run coverage. The problem with that is, the 3-4 is built largely around zone coverage, and Harris will be asked to adapt his game. That’s not an easy task for a 34-year-old cornerback, even if he is the best in the league.

The Green Bay Press Gazette summed up the conundrum facing the Packers defensive coaches perfectly.

Harris’ role in the new defense is one of the biggest questions and will test the flexibility of Capers and his scheme. Harris was ideal for the man-to-man, press-oriented defense the Packers ran the past four years because his strength, competitiveness and savvy allowed him to knock receivers off their routes at the line of scrimmage, and more than made up for any decline in his speed over the years. However, Capers’ 3-4 defense generally is more zone-oriented — that’s where the “zone” comes in the term “zone blitz” — and that plays away from the 34-year-old Harris’ strengths.

Despite the contradiction in styles, it’s encouraging that the new coaching staff is aware of Harris’ strengths.

“If being up in a guy’s face is what (Harris) does best, then we’ll have to do more of that to allow him to be the player he is. The one thing this system is geared toward is being multiple and having different coverages, but at the same time, if we have to be more specific with what we do to make sure we utilize our players’ talents to the best, that’s what we’ll do,” safeties coach Darren Perry told the Press Gazette.

It has been pointed out that the Pittsburgh Steelers, who also employ the 3-4, play a significant amount of bump-and-run. Additionally, many 3-4 defenses have evolved beyond the zone coverage scheme dictated when the zone blitz-based 3-4 was developed in the early 90s, to include a mix of zone and bump-and-run coverage.

Still, while we have to trust the coaches to play towards Harris’ strengths, something tells me that Harris, who has lost a step or two over the years, may occasionally be exposed as a liability in zone coverage. Harris can shut down a receiver coming off the line. What he isn’t good at is read-and-react coverage, which favors faster, more aggressive cornerbacks like Tramon Williams. If you recall, Williams gave up some big plays last season, often because he got burned off the line of scrimmage while trying to play bump-and-run. When he made plays, and he made a number of them, it was almost always while reacting in space.

Draw whatever conclusions you like, but I’ll suggest that Williams may end up starting opposite Charles Woodson by midseason, if the Packers don’t add a starting-caliber cornerback this offseason.

As for Justin Harrell (who ranks up there with Tony Mandarich, Bruce Clark, Buford Jordan, Vinnie Clark, John Michaels, Jamal Reynolds, and Ahmad Carroll in the Pantheon of Packers’ first-round draft choices throughout history) the switch to the 3-4 will mean a switch to defensive end (if he can get on the field and off the injury list).

Harrell’s body (6′ 4″, 310) does not translate to the nose tackle position in the 3-4, which favors larger players with a low center of gravity. Essentially, Harrell is too tall and not big enough. The ideal nose tackle would be someone like Gilbert Brown.

Harrell, is being compared to some of the taller nose tackles out there, namely Vince Wilfork in New England and Casey Hampton in Pittsburgh. Obviously, the comparison has nothing to do with demonstrated talent, and everything to do with body size, although both of those players outweigh Harrell by a significant amount.

“I’m going to have to watch more of him,” defensive line coach Mike Trgovac said, according to the Journal Sentinel. “Now I know New England has (Vince) Wilfork and Pittsburgh has (Casey) Hampton. Those are bigger guys in there.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement. With Harrell in the middle, the Packers end up with a tall, underweight player who isn’t going to occupy the necessary amount of space to let the linebackers do their job. With Harrell at end, they likely have an overweight end who lacks enough speed to get upfield.

And so, here’s where I’ll make another prediction: Harrell, even if he’s finally healthy, will make no impact in the new defensive system and become the biggest black mark on Ted Thompson’s draft record.

The bottom line is, in order to be effective in the 3-4, the Packers are going to need an influx of new talent on defense.

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