The standout performance by New Orleans Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie (three tackles, one interception, three passes defensed), who signed off the street a week earlier and hadn't played a snap since Nov. 9, 2008, was one of the highlights of the Saints' Monday night victory over the New England Patriots. And, as usual, free safety Darren Sharper played another strong game.
But another defensive back who jumped out was strong safety Roman Harper, a guy we have been touting most of the season, and who is enjoying a Pro Bowl-type year. In his fourth NFL season, Harper, 26, has become one of the league's hardest hitters in the secondary, and, almost as important, one of the surest tacklers. As predicted in training camp, new defensive coordinator Gregg Williams has used the versatile Harper in a lot of ways, including increasing his number of blitzes.
"It's like night and day, the difference between last year and this season," said Harper, who leads the Saints with 78 tackles. "With the offense we have, we always knew that if we just played any kind of defense at all, we would be tough to beat. And this year, we're really getting after it on defense."
A big part of that "getting after it" has been the play of Harper, a second-round selection in the 2006 draft who is on pace for a career-best 113 tackles. Schemes often call for Harper -- the perfect complement to Sharper -- to play down "in the box," and to come up the middle and off the edge on run blitzes and pass rushes. The former Alabama star has 1.5 sacks and four passes defensed, and he is now being recognized as one of the best strong safeties in the league.
With the presence of Sharper, who is a viable candidate for defensive player of the year honors and has three interception returns for touchdowns, Harper sometimes flies under the radar. But he is rarely underrated by opponents.
Not necessarily a big-play guy, Harper is doing the critical little things well, like tackling -- which has become increasingly shoddy in the NFL -- and limiting the receivers' yards after the catch.
Harper is quick to credit Williams for the aggressive, turnover-causing defensive mentality the coach has installed in his first year with the club. But Harper also lauds Sharper for the knowledge that the 13-year veteran has passed on to him.
"At this point in his career, Darren might be a little slower than he was, but he sees things no one else does, and he relates them to me," Harper said. "I really see the game now through his eyes and that makes a difference. It's a defense where we all get a chance to really shine."
There aren't many strong safeties in the NFL shining any brighter than Harper right now.