Dynamic Jayhawk Duo Looks to Shut Down Pittsburgh in AFC Divisional Game
By: Trae Green, Kansas Communications Assistant
When the ball is kicked into the mile-high-thin air of Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver on Sunday afternoon, the Denver Broncos will lean heavily on their Pro Bowl cornerbacks – Chris Harris, Jr., and Aqib Talib – to shut down the Pittsburgh Steelers’ offensive assault.
The Divisional Round of the National Football League’s playoffs is when the Broncos need Harris, Talib and the defense to step up most for Denver (12-4) to slow down Pittsburgh (10-6) at 3:40 p.m., central time on CBS.
“It’s going to take a lot from our defense,” Harris said. “We have to continue to be the No. 1 ranked defense out there and create turnovers to help Peyton (Manning) and the offense.”
Despite facing a Pittsburgh team that is missing its primary wide receiver and doesn’t have a completely healthy quarterback, Harris knows the Steelers still have options who can produce big plays.
Pittsburgh emerged victorious in the teams’ last matchup just under a month ago.
“We have to win our one-on-one matchups,” Harris said. “That’s the way we play – we play man-to-man and there’s no secret to what we do. Last time, we lost our matchups and that’s what happens. We have to win our matchups on Sunday.”
Losing matchups – let alone games – isn’t something the Harris and Talib are accustomed to experiencing when they’re on the field together, but in the playoffs – anything can happen.
Survive and advance, or lose and become a spectator with the rest of the nation watching the National Football League’s playoffs.
Harris knows the feeling of watching another team compete in the second to last game all too well. The Broncos suffered a 24-13 defeat at the hands of the Indianapolis Colts in the opening round of the postseason last year.
“Right now, it’s just do or die,” Harris said. “You want to give it all that you’ve got and not even try to think about the possibility of next week. We have to think about this game and try to do whatever we can to go out and play well.”
The NFL’s best cornerback tandem have only played football at any level together for three seasons – two professionally in Denver and one collegiately at Kansas.
However, in those three years, the duo has helped their team emerge victorious in 36-of-46 games. They have never tallied fewer than 12 wins in a single season.
After two seasons in Denver, the two have helped the Broncos post a 12-4 regular season record in consecutive seasons. For perspective, discounting the 2014-15 seasons since 2000, the Broncos have won 12 or more regular season games three times.
Denver’s offense had something to say about the victories the previous two seasons, but its defense has now ranked in the top-three of yards allowed in consecutive years.
The foundation for all of the success wasn’t constructed at a traditional football powerhouse in the South or on the west coast. It all started in the heart of America at the University of Kansas, in the Big 12 Conference, where high-powered offenses rank supreme year in and year out.
Harris credits some of the professional success to the two’s college days at KU.
“It makes it so much easier on the field in the way we communicate, that’s something we’ve been doing together for a while now,” Harris said. “It makes it so easy having that chemistry together out there on the field. He knows how I like to play out there and we work with each other and it makes our job easier.”
In their lone season in Lawrence, Talib and Harris combined to start all but three contests in KU’s Orange Bowl run. They intercepted seven passes, while breaking up an additional 17 attempts. The two also combined to make 131 tackles.
The ’07 Jayhawk defense caused nearly two interceptions a game, placed tied for fourth in the country in total interceptions and ranked 12th nationally in total defense.
“That whole season was memorable,” Harris said. “I think we almost led the nation in turnovers (fourth). The Orange Bowl game was a good one too, Aqib had a pick-six and I had a pick in that game. That was definitely one game we will always remember.”
Harris was quick to point out that some of the pieces who put that defense in place eight years ago are once again working to create an elite Kansas football team.
Current KU head coach, David Beaty, tutored the wide receivers during Harris’ stint in the Crimson and Blue.
“I love Coach Beaty and the direction he has the program headed,” Harris said. “He always showed a lot of passion out there. That was something I always remembered about him. When we used to do wide receiver one-on-ones he used to be out there talking trash to us – he made football so much fun.”
Now the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, Clint Bowen was the co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach in 2007.
“Coach Bowen, I don’t know anybody who is more passionate about KU than him,” Harris said. “He loves it. He does whatever he can to prepare the guys and get them ready for games. He’s a great coach at doing that.”
Directly overseeing Harris and Talib’s progress as cornerbacks was current director of strength and conditioning Je’Ney Jackson.
“Coach Jackson taught me so much technique,” Harris said. “Coming into college, he was one of those guys that really preached teamwork and having great technique out there on the field. I know he’s definitely a good strength coach. He worked us hard then when I was a freshman, so I know he’s working the boys hard now.”
Even though the program is rebuilding, Harris is confident it can once again get back where it was when him and Talib were patrolling the secondary.
“We just have to continue to develop our young players and continue to get some good recruits, while having guys who can keep that mindset of just working hard. Then, I think we can start getting some wins.”
Through the tough times at KU, the NFL’s best cornerback duo remains proud to say Kansas is where they began their winning ways together.
“Me and Aqib are proud to say that we’re from Kansas,” Harris said. “When other guys do try to say something to us about KU we can just refer back to the Orange Bowl because a lot of these guys our age played around that time, then they don’t talk too much mess. We always want to represent KU everywhere we go.”
Through their 36-10 record, 352 tackles, 19 interceptions and 69 pass breakups together, Harris and Talib’s positive representation of Kansas football during and after their playing days at the school speaks for itself.
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