Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor Defending the Deep Ball

I don't like this. I don't like this at all.

The Seahawks defensive performances against the 49ers and Steelers have been worrisome, but it is easier to name bright spots there than it is for offense. Particularly, our young safety duo of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor have been getting a lot of praise. Personally I'm pretty pleasantly surprised to see Kam Chancellor play as many snaps as he has, I expected the strong safety position to be more of a rotation, especially after the addition of Atari Bigby.

Bigby's certainly been present and has made an impact, but it's mostly been Chancellor and Thomas. They lead the team in tackles, Chancellor with 19 (15 solo) and Thomas with 15 (12 solo). Neither one has any registered play against the pass, in fact the Seahawks have yet to register an interception and the only players with passes defended are Marcus Trufant (2) and Aaron Curry (1, that should have been an interception). Traditional stats work poorly when analyzing secondary players, tackles can just as easily be racked up by assignments as by flubbed coverage by corners or safeties. But while tape analysis trumps all, having your safeties lead the team in tackles but not show up in passing stats is kind of worrisome.

Earl Thomas is probably my favorite current Seahawk, and watching him fly around against the 49ers was fun. But both Thomas and Chancellor played a lot of that game sneaking up to the line, as we had little reason to respect the 49ers passing game. It's good to see Earl Thomas be more of a force in run support, and Chancellor was expected to be an enforcer on the line but it's good to see him capable of doing it. But it left me with open questions about the two defending against the pass.

After finishing up my writeup on Browner a few days back, I found myself wondering why Browner was all alone in the endzone on that PI, and again why Earl Thomas was not in position to bat what should be an easy forced incomplete on the long Mike Wallace reception. Then Pete Carroll pointed out the same thing. Much like the pass rusher argument, this doesn't excuse Browner much, but it's football, and failings rarely stand on their own.

On the PI TD, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor started deep, but both recognize the pass late and are well behind Browner chasing down Wallace. One the 53-yard pass, Kam Chancellor is on man coverage on Heath Miller, which leaves Earl Thomas as the single high safety. It's impossible to tell from the TV broadcast how or why he's out of position, but he is.

Television broadcasts really are little help in getting a close look at safety play. Thankfully, the NFL Gamepass and Game Rewind offer "coaches film" on selected plays. The coaches film is grainy and doesn't offer a lot of angles, but I'll take any all-22 I can get. Sadly, Gamepass limits the plays available to you, and they tend to be big plays only, so I had little to work with in week one. It got a lot better this week.

(13:32) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short middle to 88-E.Sanders pushed ob at SEA 44 for 30 yards (31-K.Chancellor).

No All-22 on this one, but a play worth mentioning, with about 26-27 yards after the catch. Browner is over Sanders but with no under help and no chance to catch up to him after the catch. Thurmond is in the vicinity but focused on his receiver and apparently unaware that a pass was already made. Chancellor is in position to make the stop after about twenty yards but hesitates as Sanders stutter-steps, and then misses his tackle, as does Earl Thomas. Chancellor eventually forces him out.

1-10-SEA 39 (14:13) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short left to 17-M.Wallace to SEA 23 for 16 yards (29-E.Thomas).

Prior to the snap, Brandon Browner backs up to about 11-12 yards off the LoS, while Thomas moves forward out of the safety spot into the box. No one is on man coverage on Wallace. Snap. Thomas stays in place while trying to read Ben, while Browner backpedals to nowhere. Earl should have the under but is late on his read, Wallace makes an easy catch, weaves past Browner and Curry for a bit before Earl catches up to him.

2-7-SEA 20 (12:48) (Shotgun) 33-I.Redman right guard for 20 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

2nd and 7, the Hawks moved into a nickel formation, with Thurmond right on the line and Earl sneaking up to it. Browner and Trufant are outside of and behind the nickel linebackers Curry and McCoy. Hargrove and Mebane are pull-blocked out, Curry pursued right into a blocker (as you do), McCoy arrives late. Chancellor looks outright silly running hard into Redman's lane, and Redman employs the smallest of cutbacks to make him stumble and fall down.

2-8-SEA 20 (3:15) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short left to 83-H.Miller to SEA 4 for 16 yards (31-K.Chancellor)

This was the play where Brock was tripped into Ben's knee, but let's look at the secondary. Seahawks are in nickel, Steelers got three wide with a corner on each. Miller motions outside prior to the snap. Curry and McCoy were both lined up right over the DTs prior to the snap but move out after the snap, Curry rolling hard to his right. I thought he was heading in to pick up Miller but he seems to be running to aid Browner on Antonio Brown, and recognizes the pass to Miller too late. Prior to the snap, Thomas and Chancellor are two deep, both at the 5. Kam doesn't immediately spot the free man after the snap, but is quick enough once the pass is in the air. Miller catches the ball at about the 10 and is forced out a few yards later.

1-10-PIT 50 (7:07) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short middle to 17-M.Wallace to SEA 27 for 23 yards (39-B.Browner).

You can read Browner's failing (including making an unflagged horse collar) here. Seahawks are two deep with corners in man. Mendenhall motions out to the right before the snap, which makes Curry step back and Chancellor step up out of high coverage to cover Mendenhall. I'm not scouting DL here, but I'd like to note Chris Clemons has a lightning first step here, and is only just redirected away from Ben. Thomas, now in single high, does not move further inside, and backpedals to about the 26 after the snap. The biggest failing in the play is the lack of underneath coverage on Wallace, but Thomas put himself out of position as well.

3-9-PIT 27 (1:52) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass deep left to 17-M.Wallace to SEA 20 for 53 yards (29-E.Thomas).

As I said, this was one of the plays where I was wondering about safety help. Chancellor is on man coverage on Heat Miller who is running a drag, so that excuses him. Earl Thomas is in single high at the 43 on the offensive right hashmarks. The two corners in front of him and Chancellor all have over coverage on their receivers, meaning that if the pass is made there they should be able to get a stop by themselves. Browner, on the other hand, is behind if in stride with Wallace from about five steps in. Thomas is backpedalling and then takes a few steps Thurmond's matchup, which is putting himself well out of position even as Browner and Wallace run past his hashmark. Thanks to his speed he is able to still arrive to make the tackle (or rather help Wallace stumble down on an impressive catch), but he was well out of position.

3-29-SEA 39 (14:55) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short middle to 84-A.Brown to SEA 23 for 16 yards (39-B.Browner).

Seahawks are showing blitz, with Bigby right at the O-line but dropping back at the snap. Chancellor is on Heath Miller again, and Earl is single-high all the way back to the 5-yard line. Good pressure on Roethlisberger here, but he gets one off over the upreached hand of Atari Bigby. Browner allowed Brown to get well inside him by letting him run free on a simple cross route. Bigby's in the best position to help, but because Brown has to jump up to grab it Browner can make the open-field tackle.

3-8-PIT 10 (2:59) (Shotgun) 7-B.Roethlisberger pass short left to 84-A.Brown pushed ob at PIT 29 for 19 yards (39-B.Browner).

Browner gets pretty handsy with Brown, but never looks for the ball even when Brown is obviously making a catching motion. Well, we know that drill. Chancellor is once again spying on Heath Miller. Seemed to be the plan. Guess it worked, Miller didn't do much. For what that's worth.

There's not a lot I can say on quality of play yet, but the usage of our two safeties was interesting. Chancellor was used to play man on Heath Miller a lot, leaving Earl Thomas as the single high safety,  which is about as difficult a spot as you can play. The reviews on his play there so far are definitely what I'd call mixed, using his athleticism to compensate for somewhat middling if not outright bad decisions. Most of Thomas' tackles through two weeks have been in short yardage situations, and it's good to see him expand in that role with Lawyer Milloy gone, but he's not exactly outstanding in his deep roles. It will be an interesting factor to keep an eye on, but so far I'm not seeing a ton of effective plays against the pass from either safety.
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