“I’m used to being around great defenses,” the Saints’ eighth-year safety said. “And last year wasn’t that.”
And he knows that he wasn’t as impactful as he’d have liked to be.
“Last season I really didn’t blitz at all, so it was a little bit different,” he said. “Sometimes, you’re just in the game and you’re like, ‘I want to do something,’ but you can’t.”
That feeling of helplessness might have permeated New Orleans’ defense last season, when its generosity reached historic proportions, to the tune of an NFL-record 7,042 yards allowed.
Tightening loose joints and plugging gaps was an offseason priority and Harper, one of the few defensive starters operating from the same position as last season, is being counted on to help with the tightening and plugging.
“Every day it’s a different thing,” he said. “I’ve got to continue to evolve, continue to do some different things. I understand that my role is going to be all kinds of places this year and I’ve got to be able to adjust and do that. (Defensive coordinator Rob Ryan is) putting a lot on my back, mentally and physically, and I’ve got to be able to adjust and handle it.
“I think it’s a collaboration of everything. He sees some of the things I do well and some of the things I don’t. Overall, he’s asking me to do some different things and I’m adjusting to it, just trying to do the best I can with it, just trying to help this defense be good. As long as we’re good and we’re winning, I don’t care about anything else.”
The fact that neither of those claims could be made about the unit last year – good and winning – grated on the defense for an entire offseason. Partly, it has fueled the Saints' defense to a strong preseason start (200 yards allowed per game, 11 sacks for minus-65 yards, eight third downs converted on 29 opponents’ attempts and 25 first downs surrendered).
“You take the good from it, but you also have the bad and you try to get it corrected,” Harper said of the two preseason victories. “Don’t get too high, too low on it and understand that these games don’t count right now. Just got to continue to move on, continue to improve on the things we’re messing up still and continue to go from there.”
One area of concern that was solid against Kansas City and Oakland was preventing big plays. Oakland had five receptions 11 or more yards, with a long of 24 (the Saints had 11 such receptions, with a long of 56) and the Chiefs averaged 3.7 yards per play, with a long gain of 18 (New Orleans averaged 5.1, with a long of 37).
“We just gave up too many big plays last year,” Harper said. “We’ve got to be able to keep the ball in front of us. We’ve got to continue to try to eliminate those.
“Whether it’s alignment mistakes, or mental mistakes or blown coverages, we’ve got to continue to eliminate those and continue to get better in understanding what we’re trying to get accomplished with each call. If we do that, that cuts down half of them. We’ve got to keep guys in front of us and make tackles.”
If there has been an issue with Harper, it hasn’t been tackling. He had a career-high 124 tackles last season, along with two interceptions. Two seasons ago, he was credited with 116 stops and a career-high 7.5 sacks.
He didn’t have a sack last year but expects to get the call to rush this season.
“This year it’ll be a little bit different, I think,” he said. “I think I’ll get my number called a little bit here and there but I think everybody will have a chance to do some different things.
“I‘m just looking forward to actually getting out there and just playing fast. I just want this team to be successful. If this is the type of defense that we need to help us be successful, then that’s what it is. I don’t care about myself personally. I just want to be winning.”