METAIRIE, La. ― If Roman Harper had better timing, he could have found himself on the shoulders of his teammates, riding out of Candlestick Park a hero.
Alas, the Saints’ strong safety came up with an interception in the first quarter of New Orleans’ 25-22 win over San Francisco, not the end of the game when the team seemingly needed it the most.
“If it was the end of the game, we would have carried him off on his shoulders,” New Orleans cornerback Jabari Greer said. “But we had a whole three quarter to go so it would have been out of place.”
On Sunday, Harper will get another chance to play the hero when his Saints (2-0) host NFC South rival Atlanta (1-1) in a noon game at the Superdome.
So far this season, Harper’s contributions to defense have been wide-ranging. He’s third on the team with 12 tackles, has forced a fumble and has two quarterback hits to lead the defense.
“Roman right now is playing lights out for us,” Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams said. “He really is. We kind of ask him also to step up from a leadership standpoint, because Darren’s (Sharper) not on the field. I’ve been real pleased with what I’ve seen him do and what he has helped Malcolm (Jenkins) do.”
In the season opener against Minnesota – a 14-9 win – Vikings tight end Visanthe Shiancoe was presenting problems for the defense by the end of the first half.
Shiancoe set up the Vikings’ first touchdown, catching a 33-yard pass down the seam with linebacker Scott Shanle in coverage. A play later, Shiancoe caught a 20-yard touchdown pass from Brett Favre, beating Jonathan Vilma and a late-charging Greer.
So, at halftime, Williams made a change, putting Harper on the tall and athletic tight end. Shiancoe didn’t catch a pass the rest of the game despite being targeted two more times in the game.
“I know what I’m supposed to do now,” Harper said. “It’s just little keys now that (Williams) allows us to do that allows me to play a little bit faster. Or, if I see something, I can make a different call. It comes within this defense.”
The knock on Harper coming into this his fifth season was that he wasn’t great in pass coverage. Harper always has been a key run-stopper for the Saints and since his the entered the league in 2006, is tied for fourth in the NFL for sacks by a safety with 6½.
“He’s a really solid player, especially in the box,” 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. “He can tackle and he’s going to be sound in the box. I think he has a good understanding.”
But now he can cover and that should be a scary thought for Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
“My athleticism has always been there,” Harper said. “My coverage skills have always been there. The biggest thing now is making plays when I see it, trying to see more of the ball. Not always just so focused on the ball and try to cover (the receiver) so much but also seeing the quarterback, seeing the release and seeing it all the way through.”
Should Harper stick to his instincts and keys, Monday night’s interception might not be his last this season.
And that just means he could still leave the field on his teammates shoulders.