Tru started the season strong both in his customary role as a coverage corner but also as a run defender, something he has been good at for many seasons but is rarely given credit for. Trufant's performance in week one felt especially exciting because we didn't know how good or bad the 49ers passing offense was or would be. Well, it was and is bad, and Trufant's excellent showing is somewhat akin to Chris Clemons smacking around Brandyn Dombrowski. Neither player should be debited for dominating lesser competition, but it was lesser competition and that dominance proved aberrant.
Over the next two weeks, though Trufant didn't look like the potentially elite corner he was or appeared to be in 2007, he didn't really decline either. The competition improved. San Diego and Denver feature two of the NFL's best passing offenses. Seattle couldn't generate much pressure against Denver and that made Trufant's task even harder, but he was steady, mostly avoided being burned, and, well, settled into the level of play I have come to expect from him. He is good in cover, has serviceable ball skills, is a sound tackler and easily the teams best corner, but isn't elite, isn't ever likely to be elite, and, as his showing against Mark Clayton and the Rams evidenced, is vulnerable to game-to-game injury decline.
Injury wasn't the only thing that allowed Clayton to get the better of Trufant on a few receptions. Clayton seems like a good matchup for Trufant -- athletic, tracks the ball well, good hands even against tight coverage -- and it's not as if Tru deserves much criticism for pick routes he doesn't perfectly negotiate.
Trufant turns 30 this Christmas. I don't anticipate a wall. He entered the league with good speed and hasn't suffered any speed sapping injuries. Instead, I think like a cornerback he's a lot like if not quite as good as, Champ Bailey, I think Trufant will age gracefully, get burned on occasion, have some bad stretches and some good, give Seattle a good enough counter to opposing number one receivers, and, all in all, succeed without often excelling.
Every corner needs pass rush and almost any corner can survive paired with a dominant pass rush. Or so the thinking goes. In truth, I don't know that Trufant needs pass rush. His mix of cover, ball and tackling skills means he's prepared to do his best no matter hurried wobbler or indefensible strike. Every corner performs better paired with a good pass rush, because every opposing quarterback performs worse facing a good pass rush.
Not every corner needs a pass rush, as long we concentrate on the corner's performance and not simply the results, but Jennings needs pass rush more than most. Jennings has one standout skill but he may just make a career out of it: man coverage. He can be chucked off routes and beat. He can be bullied from a spot and left to attempt a clean up tackle. He rarely makes a play on the ball, and when he does, you hope he catches some pigskin with his slap, because he's sure as hell not catching it. But, for most snaps, Jennings does a pretty good job of sticking by his guy and creating the appearance of coverage.
Panic a quarterback, force him to make a quick decision or an imperfect pass, and Jennings ability to stick close is sufficient. Give a quarterback time, time to throw away from Jennings, time for the receiver and quarterback to coordinate a break and pass, time for the receiver to improvise as things break down, time for the receiver to command a spot, and Jennings doesn't play the ball, doesn't control position and isn't a reliable tackler. He isn't quite the liability his stickman frame might suggest. Jennings is a hard working tackler, tenacious even, but just not physically able to pop or wrap with much authority.
Jennings fills a position capably enough when pressures is steady, and his own steadiness and reliability allows Seattle to blitz more often. Right now, it's a good a relationship and mutually beneficial. When pressure weakens, Jennings is exposed.
Nickels and Dimes
This is the weak spot. Roy Lewis is the best of the bunch, but in a lot of ways, he's a different kind of Jordan Babineaux. Lewis doesn't trade big plays with about ten times as many botched plays, like Babineaux, but instead trades decent enough plays with about five times as many plays where you're not sure what he's doing. It's less exciting, less damaging on the whole, less likely to flip the game for good or ill, but all in all, still a problem.
Lewis is pretty polished. I wouldn't expect Seattle to stick with him hoping he turns a corner. He's back end roster filler with benefits. Instead, Lewis should stick as a special teams captain in the short term, be shuffled down the defensive back depth chart over time, and rise again in case of injury or poor performance. In the modern NFL, when you're best nickel or dime back is a no name guy that doesn't kill you but doesn't do a whole lot above that, it's a problem, and Seattle has looked its most disorganized and faulty facing three, four and five wide receiver sets.
Thurmond is supposed to be a big play guy, but that hasn't shown up yet. He had one acrobatic pass defense against San Diego, but otherwise he's been just another corner. When Trufant went down in week three, Thurmond stepped in and showed his inexperience. He's a rookie and rookie corners are typically loose and sloppy, and that's how Thurmond looked. His spacing wasn't great on zones. He seemed a step or two slow recognizing what to do. He just wasn't with it or contributing on most plays, instead appearing for the tackle after the fact, appearing five yards from the targeted receiver, appearing in a zone up the right sideline with no receiver within ten yards, and recovering rather than attacking.
Thurmond is someone worth being patient with and I'm sure Seattle will be. He is a physical corner that in college showed man skills, ball skills and tackling ability. Though he is well enough to play, that doesn't mean he's at maximum ability. His recovery from a knee injury is probably somewhere between healthy enough to play and full strength. The rest of the season should be a seesaw. At intervals, opposing offenses will take advantage of his confusion, slow reaction speed and aggressiveness. At intervals, Thurmond will pop through sheer athleticism and make plays. We'll probably see more of the former as the rookie adjusts to NFL speed.
Perfunctory Grade: C