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Kam Chancellor is Really Good, but Earl Thomas is Better

Key parts of a promising future for the Seahawks defense.
Key parts of a promising future for the Seahawks defense.

Safety play can not be analyzed without access to all All-22 tape. You can see when a player is outstandingly bad or outstandingly good, in general, but since you don't get a snap-for-snap read you don't really know what the player is doing on the average play, and you don't know what kind of assignments he has, how much he's asked to do. It's so much different from analyzing any other player on the field, though wide receivers and cornerbacks come close at times. So, first thing's first, I think both our safeties are pretty great, especially considering how young they are.

The problem for me comes in the way the debate is skewed by how present a player is on broadcast footage. Earl Thomas has his A-gap blitzes which he does well, as explained in-depth by Charlie, but he spends a lot of the rest of his time very deep in covering a very wide range on the field. Kam Chancellor spends relatively more time in the box and head-hunting in the middle, resulting in very noticeable plays, particularly big hits, which in turn led to him being named on Peter King's midseason all-pro (Peter of course being one of the least knowledgeable NFL writers around), pro bowl top-5s going only to Jon Ryan and Kam Chancellor, as well as to declaration of love from Kenneth Arthur. Advanced NFL Stats has Kam Chancellor as the best safety in the league, and Earl Thomas as fifth best, but those familiar with the WPA stat know it is more useful for teams than for individual safety play.

Tracking Kam Chancellor from last year to now, first and foremost we have to note how outstanding he's been, how much he's exceeded expectations in pass coverage. But it's also worth noting he was used in man coverage on tight ends more at the start of the season than later on, while we've struggled against tight ends all season. This is definitely a role Pete Carroll would want him in, considering the modern-day tight end's role in a passing offense, which basically calls for a "big nickel" type player, a role we had last season with Jordan Babineaux, but Kam Chancellor has struggled filling those shoes.

Then there's the hits. Glorious hits are easy to cheer as a fan, and I usually do, but this isn't your grandfather's NFL, and you can't really look at it and ignore the team perspective. If Kam keeps this up, he will eventually get suspended for it, and this will hurt the team. But even in games it hurts the team. Penalty wise, according to the NFL's own tracking via NFLGSIS, our biggest problem has been on the offensive line, with 31 false starts (1st in the NFL) and 23 offensive holding penalties (6th in the NFL), but our secondary and overall physical defense are also badly ranked, 8 unnecessary roughness calls (5th in the NFL), 8 defensive pass interference (8th in the NFL) and 6 illegal contact penalties (2nd in the NFL).

Most of that comes from Brandon Browner and Kam Chancellor. Browner has 16 penalties (3 declined) for 128 yards and 11 first downs. Kam Chancellor has 7 penalties (2 declined) for 66 yards and 4 first downs. Four of them are unnecessary roughness and one illegal contact. Depending on context, penalties can really hurt a defense. Giving first downs on penalties always hurt the defense. It's easy to grouse and blame it on the refs, and indeed a few calls have been ticky-tacky, but that won't stop it from hurting the team. And what's worse, big hits hurt the player making them too. Physical, hard-playing safeties rarely have long careers (though it does happen), and even more rarely do they lead productive post-career lives. I like that Kam is a sound tackler, but I think there's a balance in physical versus smart play that our defense is fast losing.

That said, that's not a huge amount of criticism on Kam Chancellor. In context, as a second-year player first-year starter, he's playing at an extremely high level. We all know that. This story's here to remind us he's no Earl Thomas.

Why would I say that? I don't have a ton of All-22 available, so mostly I have to turn to my betters, which in this case starts and ends with NFL Matchup's Greg Cosell. Cosell's been mentioned here before, and I've been a long-time fan of his. His knowledge of the game is considered on par with NFL GMs, and he's one of the only non-FO people who has access to coach's tape and whose job it is to stare at it and analyze it. There is not a source of football tape analysis on par with him, in my opinion.

He started mentioning how impressed he is with Seattle's defense a few weeks into the season. He has consistently praised the team's front seven, and has noted a few times recently that he's been very impressed with our rookie cornerback Richard Sherman. But the majority of praise belongs to Earl Thomas, with statements like "I think Earl Thomas is incredibly dynamic at safety" and "Earl Thomas is playing at an extremely high level. That kid is a really good safety."

When asked about Kam Chancellor by Doug Farrar, Cosell first notes he hasn't studied him super-closely (whereas he has done much tape analysis of Earl Thomas from last season), but he states "I don't notice him that often", there is "an occasional big hit", but he never goes "wow, that Kam Chancellor's jumping out at me". He does note "It looks like he's asked to do a lot of things and that's a real positive sign for a second-year player, first-year starter", but overall he's not as clearly impressed by Chancellor yet. This may change as he has more time to look at our games after the season.

There's other quotes one this topic that help convince me. Doug Farrar noted "Thomas is the guy every opposing coach brings up first" in pre-game pressers. Bucs Nation's head writer Sander, my sounding board on all things football, told me "Watching Seahawks all-22 is fun, Earl Thomas is special."

But that's just quotes. I never rely on other people's opinions to form mine, just to highlight elements of play that I can then inspect myself. I only have about half a dozen defensive plays available in All-22 over the entire season, but by now that's more than an entire game's worth of snaps. That said, the All-22 the NFL makes available is all big completions and interceptions, which are two extremes that don't tell you too much about the players. Still, I sat down to look at them. At the bottom of the post are a handful of play-by-play notes from the past few weeks, but they're not actually that illuminating individually. More informative, overall thoughts:

Earl Thomas can be trusted much more in single high than Kam Chancellor, due to superior instincts and speed, which should allow Chancellor to roam more in a Deathbacker role (yes, that's a real thing, a description Virginia Tech fans used for a linebacker/safety hybrid who would roam free in the box and wreak havoc).

While that may be maximizing value currently I don't think that's how we ideally run the defense. As mentioned, last season one of the reasons Jordan Babineaux was very valuable was his capability to come in as a "big" nickel corner, known generally as the "big nickel" or "wolverine" role. I saw Kam Chancellor in that role to begin the season, then less and less. That's a big factor in our weakness against tight ends, but there's nothing structurally I see in Kam's play that makes me think he can't do it. He just can't yet.

The best bit of my notes: Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor play together very, very well. In All-22, you can see them communicate with great regularity, and obvious miscommunications on plays are rare. in fact, their ability to play off each other is used very consciously in our defensive gameplan. That, among other things, is why this duo has such a great future. Kam is a bit of a throwback and hopefully he'll improve more as a pass defender rather than an enforcer, because too much of the modern NFL is about finesse over smashmouth. He'd look a lot worse if he didn't play next to Earl Thomas, who now - with Okung gone - is probably the best player on our team.


W9 Dallas Cowboys

1-10-DAL 30 (8:14) T.Romo pass deep left to D.Bryant pushed ob at SEA 31 for 39 yards (K.Chancellor). Pass complete on a "fly" pattern.

Having reviewed a ton of pass plays, I'm starting to groan whenever I see Earl Thomas sneak up into the box. This long completion is mostly on how badly Browner is beaten on a simple sideline route, while Tony Fiammetta (and wow, have the Cowboys missed him, to no surprise of mine) picks up Earl Thomas really well. Still, Kam Chancellor simply isn't fast or instinctive enough to give support in single-high like this, so Browner is essentially isolated for a big completion.

3-4-DAL 32 (12:45) (Shotgun) T.Romo pass deep right to M.Austin pushed ob at SEA 31 for 37 yards (E.Thomas). Pass complete on a "go" route.

Two safeties high, with two receivers releasing left and Miles Austin right. Chancellor sneaks into the left flat while Thomas drops into deep middle, and he responds too late to the isolated matchup on the right, and can be of no help. That's two pretty big plays where our corners are left out to dry by either safety. And two plays where those safeties get the tackles, more evidence of why such stats are kind of useless to analyze secondary players.


W11 St Louis Rams

2-13-SEA 30 (9:22) S.Bradford pass deep right to B.Lloyd for 30 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

Seahawks stack the line with five men as the Rams line up with two tight ends. Thomas and Chancellor are about ten yards deep, with Thomas pointing for Brandon Browner to stick to his man presnap. Thomas and Hawthorne appear to do the most presnap calling on our defense. Only three Rams receivers release. Browner stays with his man who runs a flag. The second receiver (can't identify him) runs a slant, KJ Wright chips but otherwise leaves him be. Chancellor latches on to that receiver in man even as he crosses into Earl Thomas' area, but meanwhile on Chancellor's side of the field Richard Sherman is alone on Brandon Lloyd on a go route. Chancellor does not pass on his man to Thomas. Thomas tries to adjust to run to Sherman's matchup but even he's not fast enough to cross the field that quick. Chancellor has issues passing on his man at the right time too often.

3-26-SL 6 (11:57) (Shotgun) S.Jackson left tackle to SL 25 for 19 yards (E.Thomas).

3rd and 26, Seahawks playing with eight in the box and the corners allowing huge cushions. Seahawks overloaded the offensive right, and Steven Jackson heads to the offensive left. Browner is blocked out as David Hawthorne and Leroy Hill attempt to chase down Jackson. Thomas, by the time of the snap, is on the offensive right hashmarks at about the 27 or 28, but he takes a perfect angle and rushes in to stop Jackson well short of the first.

3-7-SL 23 (7:53) S.Bradford sacked at SL 14 for -9 yards (L.Hill).

When you get plays in all-22 you get a better picture of how hard a quarterback's job can be. Pre-snap, he sees Chancellor and Thomas huddled up on the offensive right hashmark at the 34. Which is weird. Then Thomas steps forward as if he will blitz and Chancellor takes a step back, then suddenly they switch and Thomas goes into single-high as Chancellor moves into the offensive right flat as a deathbacker, which (by design) allows both Leroy Hill and Roy Lewis to blitz. Well-disguised for a nice sack.


W12 Washington Redskins

2-9-SEA 33 (8:33) R.Grossman pass short left to F.Davis to SEA 2 for 31 yards (B.Browner).

Earl Thomas blitzes but bites on the playfake, taking himself out of the play. Fred Davis crosses and no one picks him up, Leroy Hill in particular noting him but not dropping back on him, instead sticking his eyes to Young. Chancellor does his job in single-high to keep himself well in back but then whiffs on the tackle, and Davis nearly scores.

It's worth noting several of the early Redskins large completions (for instance, 18 yards to Gaffney later in the 1st) came on designed Earl Thomas blitzes. As noted, I'm not too fond of this play design. Our secondary becomes too vulnerable without Thomas back there.

2-2-SEA 2 (7:16) R.Grossman pass short left to F.Davis for 2 yards, TOUCHDOWN.

And here goes the touchdown. Davis chips Chris Clemons and then releases to the corner. Chancellor - playing that part of the endzone - is drawn out of the play by TE Logan Paulsen and is too slow in releasing his man onto Leroy Hill and David Hawthorne, which results in a very easy touchdown.