FOXBORO, Mass. — It seemed it was only a matter of time before Duron Harmon got his chance as a starter.
After essentially staying at full health for the first three weeks of the season, the Patriots’ starting defense is crumbling. Vince Wilfork was the first domino to fall in Atlanta when the big nose tackle tore his Achilles. Since then, Jerod Mayo and Tommy Kelly have also been lost for the season, Aqib Talib suffered a hip injury, Rob NInkovich left the Steelers game with a foot injury and Steve Gregory broke his thumb.
So, after Chris Jones, Joe Vellano, Isaac Sopoaga and Logan Ryan have already taken on starting roles, it’s Harmon’s turn now. Harmon’s snaps have already increased the past several weeks since he was inserted into New England’s defense as the dime defensive back. In that role, Harmon has played either free safety, strong safety or in the “money” role, which is more like a hybrid linebacker/cornerback position, depending on where Devin McCourty and Gregory line up.
Harmon’s safeties coach, Brian Flores, said Harmon prepares like he’s going to start every week, regardless of injuries. That seems to be the mindset in New England for any player, no matter where they are on the depth chart.
Harmon’s experience in all three roles will be valuable now for Harmon as he tries to adjust to life as a starter. Harmon has played well as the dime defender. He’s allowed just one catch for three yards on two targets, he’s closed out the last two Patriots wins with interceptions and he had a great pass breakup against the Jets. There have been some rookie moments, too, which are to be expected. But for the most part, Harmon seems comfortable both on and off the field with the Patriots.
“It helps a lot,” Harmon said about being eased into the defense in the dime role. “It’s just the idea that you get to go out there and see different things and you get to learn from them. And that’s the main thing about experience. It’s just being able to learn from certain things that you do: certain plays, certain coverages. It’s just all about learning. And that’s exactly what I was able to do playing in the dime package.”
Much of the comfort Harmon has with the Patriots can be credited to the player Harmon will line up next to: McCourty. Harmon and McCourty go way back. The two were teammates at Rutgers while McCourty was a senior and Harmon was a freshman. They kept in touch over the years and now McCourty is the go-to guy for any questions the rookie may have.
“He came to games, he checked on us and then in the offseason, we were always seeing him down at Rutgers working out with us too,” Harmon said. “It’s good being in the position that I’m in, that I came to, coming here. Because it was literally having, like, a big brother who always checked on me and made sure I was doing well. Just coming here to play with him and learn from him.”
Even given Bill Belichick‘s affinity for Rutgers players, it was a surprise for some to hear Harmon’s name called with the No. 91 overall pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Harmon hadn’t been talked about much by analysts in the pre-draft process. NFL Network didn’t even have clips to show when the Patriots selected him — his mother was none too happy about that.
Because Harmon was so unknown, there was some negativity surrounding the pick. Harmon tried to use that as motivation at first, but he’s since taken a more positive outlook.
“I mean, at first I tried to use it as motivation, but then I learned that you shouldn’t use negative motivation to motivate you,” Harmon said. “You should motivate yourself. And that’s where I’m trying to head — be self motivated and learn to be positively motivated. And just trying to get better rather than worrying what other people are saying about me.”
Whatever Harmon is doing, it appears to be working. And his coaches have taken note.
“Duron’s done a good job, just as far as picking up the defense,” Flores said. “Smart, he’s got good range. He’s a good player. He works hard. He does everything we ask of him. Team player. Yeah, so he’s done a good job so far.
“There’s little nuances of the defense that are kind of hard for younger guys to pick up. And he’s done a good job of doing that.”
One of those nuances for a safety is communication. Depending on how the opposing offense lines up, the two (or three) safeties can be shifting all over the field. If a tight end or running back splits out, either a linebacker or safety will have to drop down into man coverage.
“It improved a lot,” Harmon said about that communication. “Experience, being out there. Not just with Devin either, but Steve, as well. He’s been a big part in helping me as well. They’re both — it’s crazy — they’re so intelligent — intelligent football players that pass their wisdom on to me and continue to help me and continue to help me grow as a football player.”
Belichick has noticed the three safeties’ communication getting better, as well.
“Well, really as a safety you kind of control your side of the field and the other side controls his side of the field but you have to work together with your other safety,” Belichick said. “All three of those guys — Steve, Duron and Devin — any two of them could be in there. They’ve practiced together a lot, been in there. I think their communication is good. That’s what it needs to be. Safeties need to be on the same page and they need to relay that to the nickel or corners.”
It’s unknown how long Gregory will be out, but the diagnosis appears to be “a few games.” While players like Jones, Vellano and Ryan had to be thrown into the fire a little bit, Harmon has had the advantage of being eased in slowly. He’s made a good impression since coming to New England, quickly passing Tavon Wilson and Nate Ebner on the depth chart. But now the pressure is on the rookie to produce as a starter while more starter drops.
Fortunately, Harmon is being inserted into one of the best secondaries in the NFL. McCourty is playing like a top-tier safety, especially in recent weeks, Aqib Talib and Alfonzo Dennard can both be considered No. 1 cornerbacks and Kyle Arrington mans the slot as well as any corner in the NFL. Harmon’s former Rutgers teammate, Ryan, has been a big playmaker in the defensive backfield.
Gregory has played well, too. But now it’s likely on Harmon to be the force in the middle of New England’s defense.