Walter Thurmond's instant impact on Eagles
The free-agent signee has joined Malcolm Jenkins to shore up the safety positions.
WANT TO KNOW why Walter Thurmond has transformed this Eagles secondary? Fast forward the tape of Sunday's win to the latter stages of the first quarter. It is a play you no doubt remember: The Jets line up in trips right, throw a swing pass to Brandon Marshall, and then lose 8 yards as Malcolm Jenkins tosses his blocker aside and flings the ballcarrier backward by the waist.
This was second-and-9 at the Eagles' 48, Jets on the verge of moving into field-goal range while trailing, 3-0.
Jenkins didn't need any help, but look at the second Eagle on the scene as Marshall spins to the ground. It's Thurmond, who is three yards in the backfield on the sideline as the whistle blows. To see why that is so impressive, go back to the start of the play. Thurmond is lined up 12 yards downfield on the near hash, over top of Marshall. The near hash is roughly 23 yards from the sideline.
That means Thurmond traveled a straight-line distance of about 28 yards in about five seconds from snap to tackle. When Jenkins first grabbed Marshall's waist, Thurmond was already five yards from the line of scrimmage with a clear path to the ballcarrier. Even if Jenkins hadn't made the play, Thurmond would have been in position to make the tackle for a minimal gain.
Not to speak ill of the departed, but it's the kind of play that Nate Allen simply would not have been in position to make. And not just because he lacks Thurmond's speed and acceleration. Thurmond's arrival at Point B has as much to do with his ability to read, diagnose, and react as it does his physical talents.
"He understands route concepts, he understands what offenses are trying to do in certain situations, he understands defenses, weaknesses in defenses, strengths in defenses," fellow safety Chris Maragos said this week.
Maragos has been aware of those attributes for quite some time. From 2011-13, he and Thurmond were together as members of the Seahawks' secondary, where the Thurmond was a cornerback who played in front of the most dynamic pair of safeties in the game, Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. When the Eagles decided to move Thurmond to safety this offseason after signing him in free agency, Maragos knew it would be a natural fit.
"I could definitely see him picking everything up really quick," said Maragos, who is in his second year with the Eagles.
Anybody who watches the Marshall play can see it, too. On the snap of the ball, Thurmond immediately reacts to Marshall swinging out to the left behind the outer two receivers on his side of the field. By the time Jets quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick releases the ball, Thurmond is already moving at full speed in a straight line toward Marshall's eventual destination. Turns out, Jenkins didn't need the help. But if he did, Thurmond was there, and that's the kind of variable that was so often missing during the litany of sadness that was the Eagles' revolving door at safety from 2012-14.
Outside of the middle linebacker, safety is position where that initial second after the snap can make the most difference on an entire defense's ability to make a stop. If Jenkins had been blocked, and Thurmond had taken a step backward, or had hesitated for a second, Marshall would have had an easy gain of 5-10 yards. Instead, the Eagles had two tacklers in position to corral the ballcarrier, setting up a third-and-long and an eventual punt.
If you are looking for a reason to believe in this Eagles defense, Thurmond and Jenkins are it. Neither is your prototypical safety. Both began their careers at cornerback. Thurmond checks in at 5-11 and 190 pounds. But both are football players in every connotation.
Last year, we saw what Jenkins could do with his unique brand of physicality and coverage ability. This year, we are seeing what that combination of skills can bring to a defense when complemented by a partner who has the range and instincts to cover the field in front of him and the field behind him at the same time.
It is not a coincidence that Thurmond has been getting his hands on more balls than any other player in the secondary since the start of training camp.
The Eagles' scheme asks him to be more of a rover than a true single-high centerfielder, which plays perfectly to Thurmond's strengths and which fits his strengths. A track star in high school, he ran the 110- and 50-meter hurdles at Oregon, and twice qualified for the Pac-10 championships.
He had a scholarship offer to play at Idaho State, but that would have meant living in Idaho, so he settled on playing cornerback at Oregon and pestering then-offensive coordinator Chip Kelly for a chance to play wide receiver. That request went unfulfilled, but he finished his career with the Ducks with five return touchdowns via three interceptions, a fumble and a punt.
"In the middle of the field, there are some coverages where I'm a free roamer, a free player. Personally, I love that, because it allows me to use my instincts and really use the knowledge that I've gained throughout the week as far as understanding route recognition and concepts to be able to go out there and make plays and be around the ball," Thurmond said. "I love playing in this defense, especially at safety because it does allow me to be a free player in some of the situations."
Because Thurmond is just as comfortable playing in the slot, defensive coordinator Billy Davis is able to use a variety of coverages to thwart an opponent's passing game.
"They certainly can move around and line up in different places, so you just have to keep an eye on where they are," said Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins, who is preparing to face the duo on Sunday at FedEx Field. "Sometimes they're not trying to throw you off, they're just trying to line up and play, and other times they are trying to keep you guessing. It all depends on play-to-play and what they have called, but certainly, when you're that versatile you can have the freedom to do some different things."
At this point, the biggest question regarding Thurmond is whether he can stay healthy, an objective that has eluded him throughout his career. If he can, the Eagles should be able to relegate one critical worry to a ghost of defenses past.