What does new Falcons’ safety Duron Harmon have to offer Dean Pees’ defense?

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The Falcons signed former Lions and Patriots’ safety Duron Harmon as a reliable, high-character veteran to solidify the back end.

It might be easier to list the things that Harmon can’t do rather than listing what he can do — he’s that versatile. This is important in a Dean Pees’ defense that thrives when it has multiple interchangeable versatile safeties. If he can, Pees will rely on his nickel personnel package, as he did in Tennessee — 73% of defensive snaps in nickel, good for ninth-most in the NFL during the 2018 season.

Those safeties need to be able to defend against the run, drop into coverage and rush the passer from the slot, the box, and single-high. For a defense that relies on small personnel packages, defending the run successfully requires 11 players to do their job.

Harmon does everything well but nothing exceptionally. Although he will play free safety, his ability to provide elite run-support is among the best in the league at his position. It is rare to be as reliable as Harmon is against the run, doing a great job filling gaps because of his cerebral way of playing the game — quick and accurate diagnostic skills, regardless of his alignment. The physicality he displays makes playing in non-traditional free safety alignments possible.

Last year in Detroit, Harmon’s performance wasn’t up to his standard, I am sure, but I would point towards the Lions defense as a whole as the problem. Matt Patricia’s group was among the league’s worst in every major statistical category, and Harmon was one of, if not the best player on the defense. Before he was traded to the Lions, he was the skipper on the backend for the Patriots. He embodied the Patriot Way¬†and was named a captain in both New England and Detroit. So not only does his style of play mesh with Pees’ scheme, but his intangibles align with the culture Terry Fontenot and Arthur Smith are establishing.

Below are some plays from a couple of years ago, but the 3-3-5 defense that Belichick runs is similar to what Pees ran most recently in Tennessee. As I said earlier, for this type of scheme to be successful, the defense needs to stop the run without putting bigger bodies on the field. Stopping the run with three safeties on the field is the first key to success with Pees’ scheme, which opens up the exotic blitz and coverages that befuddle offenses. In the videos below, note all the different alignments from Harmon — single-high, in the box, and rotating down from a split safety look.

This has been my favorite signing thus far because I truly believe the scheme and player are a perfect marriage. The only issue I have with it is Harmon’s running mate, Erik Harris. A split-safety look is a bit concerning with these two; Harris isn’t nearly as reliable in coverage or making tackles as his counterpart. Cover-3 is a much more suitable coverage for their attributes, allowing Harmon to play single-high deep with Harris in the box. In the rare case, Pees can call inverted coverages that sends Harmon in the intermediate and Harris deep. Either way, they’re stopgap signings, but Harmon is the exact type of safety Pees needs — interchangeable at any safety position.

Photo: David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire

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