On Football Night in America last Sunday, NBC analyst Rodney Harrison was visibly upset with how his former team gave away a game they should’ve won against the Tennessee Titans.
On 3rd and 10 with 21 seconds left in a four point game, the Chargers decided to isolate their cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage in a situation where Tennessee needed 34 yards to score a touchdown. What? Why? How?
On national television, in front of millions watching at home, Harrison begged Chargers defensive coordinator John Pagano to “give his players a chance to win.” The criticism was damning but spot on.
Two things make this end-game sequence extra painful for fans of San Diego football: 1) On the previous play, Titans quarterback Jake Locker had a man wide open deep down the middle of the field, but over threw him by a yard or two—for whatever reason, San Diego had man coverage on the outside, 2) on both that play and the final touchdown pass, the Chargers had Eric Weddle, unquestionably the best safety in football, playing underneath near the line of scrimmage.
Weddle is undersized, but his instincts are unparalleled. Why, with 20 seconds left to go, the Titans in need of a touchdown and with no timeouts, would San Diego not have their best overall player in zone coverage, playing center field?
It’s a question Pagano should be asking himself over and over again this week, but it also brings up another interesting discussion. Why, still, is Weddle overlooked as one of football’s true supernovas?
A few of the NFL’s smartest scribes showered appreciative rose pedals on Weddle earlier this summer, and rightfully so. Nobody argues his place as one of the best safeties in football, but still, relative to the one-time elite players who were previously regarded as being the best safeties in the league (Ed Reed, Troy Polamalu, Bob Sanders, etc.) Weddle hasn’t been certified as a star.
It’s an odd development, especially during a season where the Chargers appear to have re-established themselves as a competent football team.
Apologies to J.J. Watt, Luke Kuechly, Clay Matthews, Vince Wilfork, Justin Houston, Richard Sherman, and a long list of other deserving defenders who more than belong in this company, but Weddle’s under-the-radar play so far this season places him near the top of that group as perhaps the league’s most consistently great defensive player.
Statistically his numbers don’t stand out. Part of that is because we’re only three games into the season, and also, the numbers we have to gauge the play of a safety aren’t deep enough to measure the position’s play-to-play impact.
Weddle rarely makes mistakes, though. He’s either shadowing a receiver step for step, rushing through the line (often untouched) on a blitz to make the quarterback hurry his throw, or gliding over the field to make an incredible tackle. Weddle doesn’t get juked out. He doesn’t blow assignments. Playing a position that’s of vital importance more and more each year, as the league continues to evolve and become more and more pass happy, he’s as close to overall perfection as the league’s seen in quite some time.
Weddle regularly makes plays that might not look spectacular, but they’re extremely meaningful. For example, in Week 2’s road victory over the Philadelphia Eagles, Weddle made one of the finest open field tackles you’ll ever see, near the goal line, stopping football’s most elusive running back in his tracks and saving what looked like an obvious touchdown.
It’s more difficult to appreciate a play like this than, say, a sack or interception. But how many players in the league make that tackle, closing like a flawless missile. Not many, if any. Weddle makes plays like this look easy, which is perhaps why he’s often overlooked. He’s not diving to tip passes away from receivers because he’s step for step with his man and quarterbacks aren’t even thinking about throwing the ball in that area.
His tackles and overall impact are fundamentally sound and, at this point, perhaps taken for granted. It’s about time all that stops, especially by those who know him better than anyone else.