They’re too tall, too physical and they talk too damn much. That’s three ways to define the starting Seattle Seahawks’ defensive backs, who have become, arguably, the league’s best group of pass defenders. Once considered too tall and slow, now they’re simply viewed as being too damn good as they have shut down a countless number of supposed pass-catching threats. This weekend’s task: quiet the three-headed combination of Julio Jones, Roddy White, and Tony Gonzalez.
In Week 4 of last season, they had to do the same, but circumstances were a bit different. Star cornerback Richard Sherman wasn’t yet who he is today, and neither was the other corner, Brandon Browner, who was in his first season since being transported stateside. And then there’s Kam Chancellor, the massive strong safety, who was not in the lineup.
For the Falcons, the offense in general was limited by the vanilla-minded coordinator Mike Mularkey. He wasn’t using his surrounding talent to their full potential, which was criminal considering it had a lot of potential. One of those talents was rookie wide receiver Julio Jones, who was still learning the finer points of his craft — the wide receiver position takes a long time to learn — and was early in the process of meshing with quarterback Matt Ryan.
However, now it’s different for both teams. Browner, who spends the majority of his snaps on the right side of the field, has been joined by Sherman, the left corner, and Chancellor for the long haul. The defense is very athletic and aggressive, and it beheads receivers with borderline illegal hits. On the other side of the ball, the Falcons offense is coordinated by Dirk Koetter, who is one of the most aggressive play-callers in the league, and the offense is better overall because of Jones’ development.
I’ve written about Koetter’s offense in the past, which is based off of vertical passing concepts that typically come on early downs. The first and second down downfield shots called by Koetter are something that the Seahawks cornerbacks could have problems with, particularly Browner.
Browner is not the fastest corner, and he largely gets by with physicality and technique. He’s also not very quick, which can be a problem at the line of scrimmage. He should be facing quite a bit of Jones this weekend, as Jones spends 62 percent of his snaps on the right side where Browner plays the most of his snaps (per Mike Clay of Pro Football Focus). This isn’t the ideal matchup for the Seahawks because of Jones’ explosive first step and long speed, both of which could be a significant factor on deep play-action passes and comeback routes in general.
Against the Cowboys in Week 2, Browner’s lack of short area quickness, which is a consequence of his great stature, was on display when wide receiver Dez Bryant ran a comeback route against him. Initially lined up near the line of scrimmage, Browner showed press-man coverage against Bryant but then bailed out. He was playing with deep third responsibilities on the play in the Cover 3 concept, and when he was forced to sink his hips to change directions, he struggled in doing so. This allowed Bryant to create separation on the comeback route for the big catch.
This same throw was seen in last weekend’s Wild Card game against the Redskins, when Robert Griffin III threw the comeback route against Browner to wide receiver Pierre Garcon on the first drive of the game with success. There’s also the aforementioned long speed of Jones, which he used to beat Browner on a 45-yard reception last year on a simple go-route.
While Browner will be dealing with Jones’ outstanding physical talent, Sherman will have his hands full with the route-running of Roddy White. White is a quality route-runner and does a very good job working across the field on play-action against zone coverage. In Sherman, White will be dealing with a very physical cornerback who is light on his feet for his size and plays with efficient technique.
What makes this matchup interesting is that the Seahawks play a lot of man coverage, which results in their cornerbacks naturally playing from a trail position. If the Seahawks call for man coverage and are faced with the Falcons’ play-action passing game, Sherman would be forced to cover White, who would be running routes across the field (see image below). The chances of this happening are pretty strong, as White spends 56 percent of his snaps on the left side of the field where Sherman plays over 80 percent of his (again per Mike Clay).
Last but not least, there’s also the concern of how the Seahawks’ safeties will matchup with veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzo is still one of the most effective tight ends despite being 36 years old, and he can still run down the seam well enough to take advantage of undisciplined defenders. Lack of discipline is sometimes a problem for both of the Seahawks’ safeties, which is why this matchup is very intriguing.
Going back to the Week 2 matchup against the Cowboys, tight end Jason Witten was able to take advantage of Earl Thomas’ indiscipline by running an out-and-up route just outside the seam.
When the ball was snapped, Chancellor rotated down to form what was a Cover 3 coverage concept. This meant that Thomas was held responsible for the middle of the field, where he was expected to square his shoulders and backpedal until he was given even a hint of the ball releasing from Tony Romo’s hand in a specific direction.
Romo gave a slight shoulder pump with the ball to his left, where slot receiver Kevin Ogletree ran a route vertically, and Thomas reacted by opening his hips up in that direction. This meant that his back was facing Witten, who ran downfield after passing by Chancellor.
Consequently, Witten was wide open down the field.
As one can see, Thomas (and Chancellor) will have to be very disciplined tomorrow in their dealings with future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez. This will be a key matchup to watch in this game, along with how cornerback Brandon Browner defends the speedy Julio Jones. All three defenders have, at times, had technique and discipline issues this season, which could cost them mightily in this game.