Imagine the following scene…
You are a rookie free safety facing your first ever snap of professional football.
You are trying to impress in the preseason, and your defensive coordinator has called a staple coverage of the scheme: Cover 3.
You are tasked with covering the deep middle third zone.
You are shaded to the trips side of the offense’s shotgun formation, fully aware that the #3 receiver is lined up over a linebacker – a mismatch the opposition will likely look to target.
That was exactly the situation Seattle Seahawks 2017 fourth round pick Tedric Thompson found himself in with 1:06 left in the first quarter of their preseason debut against the Los Angeles Chargers. Seattle drafted Thompson for his range, instincts and ball skills as a single-high safety. But being back-up to Earl Thomas – the player for the Seahawks’ single-high defense – is a less-than-flattering role, as players such as Steven Terrell have demonstrated.
The sideline-to-sideline range that Thomas provides to the defense is integral to the scheme’s success. This was proven in his absence following his 2016 broken leg, where opposing quarterbacks’ passer ratings increased from 61.6 to 112.0 on deep targets.
To be able to break on the ball and cover ground, the safety’s positioning is vital. Thomas has mastered this. Against a three verticals concept from a trips look, the safety must read the #2 receiver and #3 receiver, while staying aware of the #1 receiver. Knowing that the linebackers are expecting to pass these routes off to the three-deep coverage, the free safety – once he has registered all of the receivers going deep – must have gained enough depth and must stay in between #2 and #3.
It was this which Thompson failed to do on a sunny Los Angeles evening. Perhaps he was lacking sharpness in the game, as it was his first at the NFL level. He did not gain enough depth in his drop, which was partially caused by his slow backpedal. Furthermore, he dropped at a bad angle. To be able to be in position to play the ball – particularly with his 4.60 forty – he needed to be about 7 yards deeper and roughly 3 yards to the left.
Los Angeles was in a shotgun, empty formation with 10 personnel on the field (1 tight end and 4 wide receivers). Seattle showed and ran a Cover 3, with the backside corner in a hybrid man / deep third-zone coverage.
A positive sign on this play for the future of the Legion of Boom was the look-in bail technique successfully executed by rookie and potential starter Shaquill Griffin (#26) at the top of the screen. He ‘looked-in’, reading the quarterback as he bailed into his deep third zone while being ready to jump from the #1 receiver to the #2 receiver’s seam route.
Offseason addition linebacker Terence Garvin (#52) also did an excellent job playing his hook zone, picking up the deep crossing route from #3 receiver Travis Benjamin (#12) and passing it off to where Thompson should have been. As it was, Thompson was unable to create the required angle to break effectively on the route, and QB Kellen Clemens (#10) was left with a simple lofted 75-yard touchdown pass. Simply put, the threat of the #2 receiver’s seam route was too distracting to Thompson. As head coach Pete Carroll said “we misplayed the play”.
The Chargers’ attack was targeting the weaknesses of the Cover 3 system with their route combination. Yet this is something that excellent free safety play can deal with, as Earl Thomas has frequently established. Thompson has been provided with a valuable lesson on the importance of location, angles, and awareness as a play develops in the faster NFL. It is just one of the many aspects that a rookie free safety must learn in order to succeed in the Seattle-style Cover 3.