Washington Football Team: Should DBs coach Chris Harris be on the hot seat?

LANDOVER, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 08: Kamren Curl #31 of the Washington Football Team reacts in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants at FedExField on November 08, 2020 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images)
LANDOVER, MARYLAND - NOVEMBER 08: Kamren Curl #31 of the Washington Football Team reacts in the fourth quarter against the New York Giants at FedExField on November 08, 2020 in Landover, Maryland. (Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images) /

2-6 and a bye week equals soul searching. The Washington Football Team is no doubt evaluating everything from the general manager down to the administrative intern this week, and I thought I’d weigh in with some helpful advice.

Let’s do a quick analysis of one of the most underperforming units on the 2021 team: the defensive backfield. The straw man argument I’ll posit is: should the Washington Football Team fire defensive backs coach Chris Harris?

The simple answer is “no.” You can stop reading now if that’s all you dropped in for.

To be clear, other than a few low grumblings from fans who think the entire coaching staff should be axed, no one is calling for Harris’ head. But it’s not unreasonable to think that this could happen should the 2021 campaign continue on its current trajectory.

After a surprisingly effective 2020 season, the Washington Football Team defensive backfield has taken a major step backwards in 2021. Poor communication has led to opposing receivers running free for touchdowns. Poor tackling has contributed to a league-worst (by a mile) 3rd down conversion defense. Personnel decision have been questionable. Major new additions have underperformed.

There are several points to be made in Harris’ favor. He took over in 2020 after a successful run as assistant defensive backs coach for the Chargers. This marks his first stint a lead positional coach. By any reasonable account, in 2020, his unit overperformed.

He got a very good year out of oft-injured Ronald Darby at one corner and steady play from his other primary corners Kendall Fuller and Jimmy Moreland. Most impressively, he navigated a safety situation which saw him lose one starter (Landon Collins) to injury and another (Troy Apke) to poor play before the season was half over. He helped 7th-round rookie Kamren Curl develop into the team’s best safety, and coaxed strong performances out of both a career special teamer in Deshazor Everett and a career practice squader in Jeremy Reaves.

When considering Harris’ performance in 2021, we shouldn’t forget those achievements in 2020.

But a bit of context may help clarify what we have seen so far in 2021.

In 2020, the Washington Football Team had a top-five defense. It was commonly assumed that the 2021 squad would ride that defense to victory as the offense built itself up. We all know what has happened to the offense. But why has the defense struggled?

Washington’s defense amassed 47 sacks in 2020, good for 6th best in the league. But Washington benefitted from a scheduling quirk that may have artificially inflated those numbers.

Playing in the NFC East, the Washington Football Team played six games against the Philadelphia Eagles, New York Giants, and Dallas Cowboys – the teams that finished 1st, 3rd, and 8th in overall sacks allowed. 27 of its 47 sacks (or 57%) came in those six games. Three more games were played against teams who ranked in the bottom-ten in terms of sacks allowed.

Playing against teams with such poor pass protection made the entire defense – including the secondary – look a little better than it probably was. Dallas and Philadelphia both experienced devastating injuries along their offensive lines in 2020, losing multiple starters for the entire season. The Giants simply had a poor line which they were beginning to rebuild.

In 2021, all three of those teams have improving lines, and Washington is facing a tougher schedule across the board. Pass pressure has not been as good, and the entire defense – including the secondary – has suffered.

But if a somewhat-inflated reputation is partially responsible for 2021 woes, there are tangible problems with the play of the defensive backfield as well. And as position coach, Harris has to answer for them.

We cannot know what he contributed to personnel decisions in the 2021 offseason. With a defensive-minded head coach in Ron Rivera and a hands-on defensive coordinator in Jack Del Rio, Harris may not have had much say in roster moves.

Three major contributors in 2020 are not with the team this year. Darby was allowed to walk via free agency. Moreland was cut in favor of other players. And Reaves was returned to the practice squad, where he remains. The players who have replaced them – William Jackson III, Bobby McCain, and Benjamin St-Juste – have not played very well.

In St-Juste’s case, I think everyone is willing to accept that he is a rookie being tossed into the fire. Though he has been beaten too many times this season, his talent is apparent and he shows signs of growth.

But McCain has regressed in the current system. Playing both slot corner and free safety through his career, McCain has consistently posted PFF ratings in the mid-60s. That is not elite, but it is steady, professional caliber. In the first half of 2021, his ratings have dipped below 60.

Jackson’s decline has been more precipitous. He was brought in to be the team’s top boundary corner, touting a track record to back it up. Playing for a poor Cincinnati team (where he did not benefit from a quality pass rush), Jackson consistently posted ratings above 70, which is excellent for a corner. He had one down season in 2019, but responded with another strong year in 2020. So far in 2021, Jackson’s numbers have dropped below 50, among the worst in the league.

Among the holdovers from 2020, Landon Collins has also regressed, but that can be seen as part of a long-term decline that appears to have resulted in a permanent shift from safety to nickel linebacker. Both Fuller and Curl have maintained their steady performances.

So one of the questions facing the team is how much position coach Chris Harris (along with his two assistants Brent Vieselmeyer and Richard Rodgers, Sr) are to blame for the regression in the play of the defensive backfield this season?

We have discussed ad nauseam how the scheme decisions and the personnel decisions have seemed out of sync. Jackson and St-Juste are press corners who should be at their best in man coverage. But this team plays a lot of zone, and they do not play it well. They take poor drops and angles, and they do not tackle well after the pass is completed. That is a lethal combination of miscues.

To be fair to Harris and his assistants, part of that blame falls onto the linebackers, who are not good in zone coverage either. Washington chose not to acquire a quality off-ball cover linebacker after Kevin Pierre-Louis departed. They have relied instead on veterans Cloe Holcomb and Jon Bostic (before his injury), neither of whom is particularly good in coverage, and rookie Jamin Davis, who has the tools to cover but has seemed overwhelmed at many times during his first year.

The Washington Football Team has done a poor job of neutralizing its opponents’ wide receivers, who have made crucial big plays against the secondary all season. In half of its games so far, Washington has allowed an opposing receiver to catch at least 9 balls. (Washington’s receivers have done that once this year.) In two of the games in which the defense prevented an opponent from catching nine or more passes, the defense allowed an opposing player to catch two or more touchdowns.

Statistics on passes defended and interceptions are down across the board from 2021. By virtually any metric, the Washington Football Team secondary has regressed from its solid 2020 performance.

Still, the team should not even consider firing Chris Harris. There are a number of reasons.

First, as noted above, the entire defense has underperformed in 2021. The line has a great deal of talent, but has struggled to be consistently dominant. The linebackers have very little talent and have struggled to be competent. Harris’ secondary has suffered as a by-product of these other deficiencies.

Second, we should not discount what he achieved in 2020. If for no other reason, his work with Kamren Curl should earn him some leeway as Washington looks toward developing young players like St-Juste and Darrick Forrest.

Third, the defense is beginning to play better. Turnovers are ticking up and points allowed are trending down in recent weeks. Hopefully, Montez Sweat’s injury will not derail things.

Finally, should the team say good-bye to Harris, where does it turn? There is no obvious upgrade available. Dick LeBeau isn’t coming out of retirement to right the ship.

Harris has paid his dues and worked his way up through the ranks. He is 39 and has a bright future (though he might be considered old by San Francisco 49ers standards – where the average age of coordinator is 38). Going through some adversity in the first part of 2021 may actually prove to be a good test for Harris. Let’s see how he responds in the second half of the season.

At which point there will be plenty of time to evaluate Chris Harris. As well as all of the other coaches and players.

These players must step up without Montez Sweat. dark. Next