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How Shaquill Griffin can become a shutdown corner

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Seattle Seahawks v San Francisco 49ers Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Shaquill Griffin did not intercept a pass in 2019 but he came close. Yes he very nearly had one of the best plays of the season for the Seattle Seahawks. I want to look at that play as a means of examining Griffin and projecting how he might break out in 2020.

Here’s the play in question:

3RD & 5 AT SF 46(12:27)

(12:27) (Shotgun) J.Garoppolo pass short middle intended for E.Sanders INTERCEPTED by Sq.Griffin at SEA 47. Sq.Griffin to SF 46 for 7 yards (T.Coleman). PENALTY on SEA-J.Taylor, Defensive Holding, 5 yards, enforced at SF 46 - No Play.

The Seahawks are actually in man coverage of all things. Griffin is matched against Emmanuel Sanders. Both are at the bottom of the above picture, matched up outside the numbers on the right.

Seattle rushes five against five blockers but generates no pass rush. That’s bad.

Jimmy Garoppolo should have time to find Seattle’s weakest link in coverage and attempt a very low-risk, high-reward pass. But he’s a bit itchy and nervous. He also, after what looks like a token look off to the right, more or less focuses on Sanders. His throwing motion’s kind of iffy. He takes two little steps backward before opening his hips and firing. The pass has zip but it’s fatally inaccurate.

Jarran Reed very nearly tips it.

As for Griffin, well ...

Sanders wins inside position almost immediately.

Griffin never lays a hand on him. Sanders’ move is unremarkable, a simple plant and cut inside. But he’s so open that he starts to wave over to Garoppolo.

Two things begin to work in Griffin’s favor. He’s faster than Sanders. And Sanders begins to angle his route down field.

That allows Griffin to undercut his route.

Add it all up, the nerves enabled bad passing form, the partially disrupted passing lane, Sanders’ move up field, and Griffin’s excellent recovery, and you get a fantastic interception by Griffin which would have given Seattle the ball at San Francisco’s 46.

Instead a very late flag was thrown for Jamar Taylor’s defensive holding. Which just for the record was an ambiguous play, away from the ball, which had no impact on the play, in which the receiver initiated contact, and fell but not because Taylor held of impeded him, flagged by someone who was at least 20 yards from the incident and only after Griffin had intercepted the pass.

The infraction:

The flag being thrown by, very possibly, Kyle Shanahan.

For our purposes, what matters is that Griffin intercepted the pass without the aid of penalty. But he didn’t, because the play didn’t count, and he didn’t intercept a pass at any other time in the season or postseason. Right. But what does that mean?

Griffin has three interceptions in three seasons. Let’s look at those too, but much more briefly.

#1

1ST & 15 AT ARZ 20(08:54)

(8:54) D.Stanton pass deep middle intended for Ja.Brown INTERCEPTED by S.Griffin at SEA 29. S.Griffin to SEA 29 for no gain (Ja.Brown).

Reed comes free on a stunt and pressures Drew Stanton. Stanton, who’s likely out of the league for good, throws up a punt.

I would say Stanton made the fatal error of targeting where two cover 3 zones overlap, but that would imply he was targeting anything.

#2

1ST & 10 AT CHI 44(09:05)

(9:05) (Shotgun) M.Trubisky pass short right intended for A.Robinson II INTERCEPTED by SL.Griffin (B.McDougald) at SEA 49. SL.Griffin to CHI 43 for 8 yards (C.Whitehair).

Bradley McDougald tips Mitchell Trubisky’s pass. Griffin, doing a good job driving on Robinson’s route, is able to correct for the tip and intercept the pass.

#3

1ST & 10 AT CHI 38(11:59)

(11:59) (Shotgun) M.Trubisky pass deep right intended for A.Robinson II INTERCEPTED by SL.Griffin at SEA 24. SL.Griffin to SEA 24 for no gain (A.Robinson II).

Robinson runs a go route, which means that for all intents and purposes Griffin’s in man coverage throughout the route. He doesn’t jam Robinson, at all, and he’s beat for a while, but the pass is underthrown and thrown with a very flat angle. It’s still a great display of ball skills, as he tracks the ball very well and makes a confident catch.

Griffin has played about 1,700 regular and postseason snaps since getting this interception. He doesn’t seem to lack ball skills. He seems solid in coverage. So what’s lacking?

Deception and the confidence to game the quarterback, would by my guesses. Griffin seems like he’s always reacting, never working from a plan, never making reads or taking risks. He seems to frequently lose off the snap and that puts him in a passive position. His zone coverage turns into man coverage because he’s left catching up with his man, and that robs him of the ability to confidently read the quarterback and make a play. Of those three picks and one near pick, two were underthrown passes, one was a wild week-17 huck, and one was tipped. They’re all earned, but not one is stolen in the way ballhawk corners are known to steal interceptions.

Griffin is a solid corner. The leap he needs to make to become a great player, in my opinion, is a mental leap. He needs the rapaciousness which makes (and typically, later in their career, undoes) great cornerbacks. He hasn’t always played with the best deep safety help, which may factor into his confidence. But I think this is ultimately more about his mentality and his decision making. He doesn’t need to become Marcus Peters, but a li’l of that Peters’ stank, a li’l bit of that dog in him which makes Peters great when he’s great, could enable Griffin to take the next step.

A lot of cornerbacks can feast on bad passes and bad quarterbacks. Some can’t even do that. Some trade picks with blown coverage. Richard Sherman, at his best, blew coverages. But he achieved a ratio such that the mistakes were more than compensated for by the picks. Those picks eventually allowed Sherman to intimidate opposing quarterbacks. The same is true of any corner who’s ever been known as a “shutdown corner.” No one really fears a pass defensed. A corner who cannot make a play on the ball achieves only the appearance of good coverage.

Griffin can make a play on the ball. He’s pretty good at it, actually. But he has so few opportunities to show that skill, because he’s rarely in position to even try. Instead he plays the man and reacts to the ball. Guy’s get better. Mental gaps are often the easiest to fill. If Shaquill can play catch-up less often, and find assertive, active rather than reactive ways to defend the ball in flight, he has the potential to make a sizable leap in performance.

But, y’know, if if if if.