In Defense of Kelly Jennings (?)

DK Edit: Good first fanpost here and another excellent look at Kelly Jennings' play against the Chargers. Thomas did a great post on this as well here that you may want to re-visit. 

There were two stand out plays on San Diego's opening drive where the Seahawks defense missed opportunities to stall Philip Rivers' alpha-male touchdown dreams. Both of these plays were the result of mistakes made by individual Seahawks failing to execute on solid defensive play calling. Um, yeah, no shit, right? Well here's the surprising part: none of these players was Kelly Jennings. Sure, the Chargers' receivers ended up in Jennings' vicinity at the end of each play, with our much maligned CB making the tackles after the damage had already been done, but after watching the game again last night and analyzing each of these key snaps, I simply cannot fault our de-facto number two cornerback.

Please forgive my lack of detail in advance. My wife erased the game from the DVR to make space for more reality TV. As a result, I am not able to mention certain players by name and specific yardages, downs, etc. will be vague. I did however watch these two snaps in slo-mo quite a few times, so I have a pretty good feel for what actually went on.

The first play in question resulted in that deep ball reception by Vincent Jackson that we all know and love so well. Kelly Jennings is matched up with VJ on the left. This is already a huge problem for the Seahawks, especially if you're a regular here at Field Gulls and take for granted that Kelly Jennings is terrible. Still, as the play progresses, our alien-headed CB manages to stay with Jackson step for step in under coverage. Yet it makes no difference, since Jackson ends up lunging forward to catch a 48 yard pass that Charger dreams are made of.

On the surface, we might ask ourselves why Jennings was unable to make a play for the ball. The easy answer is, "Because he is Kelly Jennings and he has no ball skills!" I would argue that the actual answer is because Philip Rivers saw the mismatch and threw a perfect pass that Vincent Jackson was forced to lean forward to snag, thus rendering the shorter Jennings unable to break up the play, assuming a lack of Go-Go Gadget arms.

So why was Jennings in under coverage and not playing the over? Short answer: he was supposed to have help. San Diego had three receivers, two deep on the wings and one up the middle on a slant. I am not 100% sure of who was playing strong and free safety on this play, so I will call them safety RIGHT and safety LEFT, with directions from the point of view of the offense.

Safety RIGHT bites on the outside route already covered by CB Marcus Trufant. Safety LEFT sees this and scrambles to cover the middle receiver, getting there in time to (mostly) do just that. Even as RIGHT realizes his mistake, the ball is in the air. It was mildly amusing to watch both players perform the body language equivalent of saying "Oh Balls!" as they veered toward the left sideline, hoping for a miracle.

As we all know, Kelly Jennings cannot cover Vincent Jackson alone, especially on a deep route where he is supposed to have help. The fault lies with safety RIGHT for not covering his man in the middle and allowing safety LEFT to do his job of helping the CB. This would have forced Philip Rivers to thread the needle in double coverage or, more likely, take a sack. (Watching the line on this play, I am convinced that if that had been Sean Locklear playing right tackle for San Diego, there would have been a holding call. The DE was that close…)  

The second play in question in this drive was on 3rd and 11, on the Seattle 38. Seattle had just made a nice play against the run, with Kam Chancellor stuffing Mike Tolbert for a one yard loss after the initial contact by Aaron Curry. We were smelling that familiar, bittersweet aroma of another bend-but-don't-break style defensive victory.

And then there was Philip Rivers. San Diego lines up in what looks like a two tight end set, with TE Kory Sperry on the line between the right tackle and right guard, the other set as a blocking receiver on the near left wing. Actually, it is the RB Mike Tolbert who is lined up on the wing, and I'm not going to guess what this formation is called. 

Philip Rivers sees something he likes and calls an audible, setting Mike Tolbert in motion ending up adjacent to Sperry directly behind the line. After the snap, the 'Hawks drop back in coverage but still manage to get a bit of pressure on the QB. It's all for naught however, because the rest of the world now sees what Philip Rivers just saw: Raheem Brock trying to cover the slot. Brock hesitates for a split second, which is enough to allow the TE who was originally on the line to run a quick slant to the inside. Brock is too far back and gets burned further by being slow as hell to get to his man.

Tolbert, who was set in motion, ended up blocking, but judging by Brock's body language, he was already mentally committed to covering "that guy." Deer-in-the-headlights plus not that fast to begin with equals failure. The end result was a gain of 16 yards for the San Diego offense.

The rest of the play was well covered by the Seahawks, which is part of the reason why it took so long for help to arrive near the sidelines. The name of that help was Kelly Jennings and he is maybe, just maybe, not as bad as I thought he was.

When I first watched this game at full speed, these two plays appeared to my untrained eye to be the result of poor play by Jennings. This is not only due to my lack of real expertise in football analysis, but also on the amount of negative press he gets around Field Gulls, my number one source for Seahawks news and opinions. I realize now that my preconceived notions about his caliber of play have led me to blame the guy for an unfair proportion of our pass coverage woes. Is he an above average cornerback? No, most would say not. But he stays healthy, does not draw penalties, and, as far as I can tell from last week's game, does what is asked of him. Small sample size, I know, but hey, it's my first post.

(Critical feedback is welcome. I've never written about football, so please be gentle.)

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