Seattle has two halves of a whole and through four games, those two halves are completing the other. That's the plan, and it's worked. I used to support the symmetrical safety strategy Seattle ran with Deon Grant and Brian Russell, though I wasn't terribly fond of the personnel used to accomplish that strategy. In retrospect, specialization makes a lot of sense, and fielding two generalists seems to lead to a lot of inadequate play from all involved. I think specialization in general is a smart strategy for an NFL coach. A player like Lawyer Milloy is not that rare, nor is a player like Earl Thomas, but a player that can adequately do what both Milloy and Thomas do, is very rare. Expecting to find two such players is how a team starts Brian Russell.
Every season, some young safety, often a rookie, rises to prominence because of big plays. Jairus Byrd stormed the league last season, preceded by Chris Horton, Atari Bigby, Donte Whitner, Mike Adams, Michael Boulware, Brian Russell and so on down the line. A lot of these guys go poof shortly after in part because the big plays are mixed with lesser noticed screwups, in part because big plays are hard to repeat, and in part because some players become liabilities because they are locked into making the big play.
Right now, big play safeties that do not do enough of the nuts and bolts stuff are Earl Thomas's peers. He has great ball skills, great break, great range and great awareness, but if you watch enough tape, you also notice the guy out of position a lot. I mean a lot. However, that Thomas is not preordained to be a great safety, that Thomas has work to do and that Thomas's best moments are not defining, does not mean Thomas is not a very good young safety with almost unlimited potential. It just means that Thomas is, as the classic saying goes, neither as good as he looks at his best nor as bad as he looks at his worst.
He is talented but learning on the job. Thomas should develop better anticipation and better discernment. His anticipation of deep routes hasn't caught up with his quickness, but his quickness has helped cover that weakness. In time, he should be better able to close and double team receivers running deep. His discernment is the bigger variable. Right now, he's vulnerable to decoy screens, double moves and in breaking routes like posts.
If you look at passes listed as targeting the "deep middle" you can see this feast or famine performance. Overall, Seattle is allowing 5.8 adjusted net yards per attempt and a 50% completion percentage. That is helped mightily by Thomas's interception and Kelly Jennings skin of his teeth recovery to swat a ball away from Malcom Floyd. In that very small sample, we have a 4th and seven converted, a third and 12 converted and a third and 11 converted. Deep middle passes have averaged an unadjusted net yards per attempt of 10.3. The deep middle is, in most coverage schemes Seattle runs, Thomas's primary assignment, but he's often lost chasing. Sometimes, reading the quarterback and closing underneath leads to this. Sometimes it leads to a long touchdown.
This Sunday's game in Chicago should be a good test for Thomas. Mike Martz loves deep, in breaking routes, but the Bears have been brutally bad at converting deep middle passes. Through five weeks, Chicago is 6 for 13 for 166 yards and four interceptions on passes marked "deep middle." Four. Interceptions. Thomas could take over the game. Thomas could play a part in Seattle's collapse.
And that's how it is for a young, super promising but still raw safety talent like Earl Thomas: week by week, play by play.
In Buddy Ryan's 46 defense, number 46, Doug Plank, was essentially an additional linebacker. That might be the best way to think of Milloy. He does linebacker stuff well and plays cover like a light, agile linebacker. That puts a lot of burden on free safety and when Thomas does screw up, we should be mindful of how much of this defense Earl carries on his back.
Which isn't to say Milloy isn't important or isn't just about impossible to replace given the current roster, only that the resulting downgrade of losing Milloy would show itself in run support, blitzing and coverage on short patterns. The resulting downgrade of losing Bad Bones would show itself in Seattle's ability to defend deep passes. One helps the Seahawks be a good defense. The other prevents it from being terrible.
Milloy is aware, doesn't waste much motion, takes good angles in pursuit and while blitzing, is a solid tackler with grip and rip skills, and as long as he's not running all over creation, a reliable if unspectacular pass defender. His late career resurgence comes down to a disciplined approach to his use, or in less annoying words, Milloy is good at what he does and is valuable as long as he's not extended beyond his limitations.
Babineaux isn't very good in coverage, isn't very reliable as a run stopper, but tackles well, plays the ball well and doesn't kill Seattle as long as he's subbing in on dime and nickel packages. This is pretty much what Babineaux has been since snap one, and though he's better suited for safety than corner, I wouldn't want him starting full time in either capacity.
Perfunctory Grade: B