The big story of this Niners season — as it should be, for a rebuilding team — is the rapid development of several promising young players, such as Nick Mullens, D. J. Reed, Dante Pettis, Fred Warner, Mike McGlinchey and Marcell Harris.
The latest player to emerge — and maybe one of the most important — is converted cornerback Tarvarius Moore, aka Tarvariusaurus Rex. He was a teammate of Mullens at Southern Mississippi, having grown up in tiny Quitman, MS (a town of 2,323 people hard on the state’s eastern border with Alabama).
Moore played safety in college and — perhaps more than Ahkello Witherspoon — has absorbed knowledge from teammate (and future coach) Richard Sherman in the course of learning the NFL ropes. He has adopted Sherman’s distinctive diagonal stance, for example, facing the quarterback as much as the receiver he’s covering on most of his downs.
Moore is also noticeably more physical than Witherspoon, making at least an effort to jam at the line, and eager to tackle on runs and screens. At the end of the first quarter, Seattle had the ball at the Niners 43, and Moore was playing back at the 35 in deep coverage on first and 10. It turned out to be a handoff to running back Chris Carson, who bounced outside to the left.
Moore (#33, top of the screen) raced 13 yards all the way up to the 48, 4 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and dove at the thick RB, who managed to hurdle him but barely got back to the line of scrimmage after that. With more experience, the young CB might have tackled higher for a painful TFL, but the spirit is clearly willing.
Moore came out of college a bit under the radar. He was not invited to the Combine, despite legit 4.32 speed and on-field production his senior year (87 tackles, 3 tackles for loss, 10 pass break ups and 3 interceptions). But that was the only year he started at Southern Mississippi; Moore played two years at Pearl River Community College and was a reserve his junior year, though he managed two interceptions even in that role.
Be that as it may, the potential of this speedy 6’2”, 190-pound DB was always there. Lance Zierlein projected him as a 2nd-3rd round pick and raved about him:
“Possesses rare speed, length and explosiveness at the safety position, but his tape says he’s not just a workout wonder. Moore is a premium athlete with smooth hips and fluid feet with the ability to handle man cover matchups that others could struggle with. While there is still work to do, he’s not a raw prospect and should be game-ready fairly quickly. Moore’s tape shows his ability to handle coverage and run support duties and his elite athletic traits will likely push him way up the draft board into Day 2.”
Moore started the season the way a rookie is supposed to — watching tape, working his ass off on special teams (he became the gunner on the punt return unit), and waiting for his opportunity. He was the 49ers’ special teams player of the week against Denver in Week 14, with 3 tackles in just 20 plays, and has been battling Mark Nzeocha for the lead in ST snaps all year. Against Seattle, coach Kyle Shanahan said later, Moore had a key block on Richie James 97-yard kickoff return “which sprung him loose” for a touchdown.
He didn’t play much on defense though, with just 49 snaps in his first 13 games (including 7 against Denver) while he studied the left CB position behind Sherman. At the end of October, defensive coordinator Robert Saleh gave Moore some high praise, once you translate the coach speak:
“Yeah, he’s gotten a lot better [at cornerback]. His practice habits are fantastic. He’s gotten better every single day. He’s one play away now.”
“One play” didn’t mean some amazing move by Moore, but rather an injury to one of the two starting cornerbacks. And that happened last Sunday in Week 15, when starting right CB Ahkello Witherspoon got hurt midway through the first quarter, after just 6 snaps. The rookie entered the game in a very tough spot: playing a new position (right cornerback) and facing Russell Wilson, who was first and goal at the SF six yard line with 10:12 left in the first quarter.
Not surprisingly, Wilson targeted the green rookie immediately. He covered his main responsibility (#83, WR David Moore) tightly on 2nd and goal, forcing Wilson to throw it out of bounds, safely away from him. But 3rd and goal was a fade to Doug Baldwin, who juked the rook for a clean release and a touchdown.
To no one’s surprise, Wilson kept coming at Moore. At 2:39 of the first, the QB threw a perfectly timed comeback to Tyler Lockett, who fell out of bounds on the sideline — Moore wasn’t anywhere close. Another comeback route at 9:27 of the 3rd earned enough yards for a first down. All in all, Seattle targeted the green converted safety ten times.
But those three plays were about all he gave up, and even they showed respect by Seattle. There were no go routes, posts, or double moves against the rookie; just relatively safe patterns (a fade and three comebacks). And when the game was on the line at the end of the fourth quarter, the increasingly confident young DB had ice in his veins.
The fireworks began in the last three minutes of the fourth quarter, with the score tied. Seattle had the ball with 2:46 left in the game, third and nine at their own 35 yard line, after consecutive penalties on each team. The call was a comeback to Doug Baldwin, covered by T. Rex, which should have been a relatively easy play early in the drive. But Wilson threw it short and away from Moore, respecting his coverage, and the ball skittered uselessly into the turf.
Seattle punted. The Niners got one first down, but after a Nick Mullens sack, they had to give the ball back. Seattle started their final regulation drive in a pounding Santa Clara rain (?!?), at their own 26 with 1:38 and two time outs left. They needed only a field goal to win.
Facing Russell Wilson and Doug Baldwin in this scenario, the Niners were in perfect position for an Elegant Tank. But something had changed with this team.
Wilson, in shotgun, dropped back. His first read was clearly T. Rex covering Seattle WR David Moore (#83 at the bottom of the screen), but he wasn’t open. So Wilson turned to his right and hit 49ers legend Mike Davis for a check down, which only got to the 30, tackled inbounds.
The clock kept ticking as the Seahawks raced to the line, but 17 seconds ticked off before they snapped for second down — another short pass up the middle to Davis, which earned a first down but forced Seattle to burn one of their two remaining time outs with 1:02 left.
The announcers breathlessly announced that Russell Wilson was the best NFL quarterback in last second wins, with 26 fourth quarter or overtime wins in just 121 career games. Niners fans didn’t need to be reminded.
A run was called back due to a hold forced by Solomon Thomas. So now it was 1st and 20 at the Seattle 33, with 0:53 seconds left. Wilson threw a screen to RB Chris Carson 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage, with center Justin Britt (6’6”, 315) and J.R. Sweezy (a mere 6’5, 298), paving the way.
Britt and Sweezy double-teamed LB Elijah Lee (6’2”, 229) and pancaked him, not surprisingly. But they left Moore alone, perhaps mistaking him for Witherspoon (who, uh, does not relish contact). The rookie speared Carson and dropped him inbounds after a five yard gain. The clock kept ticking.
Wilson snapped on 2nd and 15 with 30 seconds left and threw at Tarvarius and WR David Moore just short of the first down. T. Rex played tight, timed his leap better and got his hands on the ball, but couldn’t pull it in. Announcer Chris Spielman called it, “excellent coverage right there.” The referees didn’t even think about a flag.
Now it was 3rd and 15, at Seattle’s 38, with 25 seconds remaining. For all the marbles. The play-action fake is not very believable under the circumstances. Wilson winds it up and goes deep to his left — right at Tarvarius Moore and David Moore, 15 yards closer to the goal line than the “field goal range” line suggested by Fox NFL. A completion would have won the game, after a chip shot field goal.
Once again, T. Rex tracked the ball better than the wide receiver, boxed him out expertly on his back side, and timed his leap better.
Once again he had the ball in his hands, but couldn’t hang on. No matter, on fourth and 15 Seattle punted and the Niners killed the remaining second.
In overtime, Seattle got the ball first with a chance to win it all. But Pete Carroll and Russell Wilson had given up on testing the rookie. They ran twice, and when it was time to throw deep, they went at their old colleague Richard Sherman instead. The pass was complete but called back due to offensive holding. The next pass was up the middle, avoiding both CBs and far short of the first down; the punt that followed set up the Niners winning drive.
A rookie pressed into his first extended service on defense could not have really done much better. It’s important not to leap ahead and anoint him as a future starting corner; we’ve done that two years in a row with Rashard Robinson and Ahkello Witherspoon, and neither lived up to (way too optimistic) expectations.
At a minimum, though, Moore has earned the starting job in the last two games, and if he does well, Witherspoon will face serious competition for the starting right cornerback position. And if they are both good, that’s even better; Sherman at 31 does not have a long career ahead of him, however well he is playing right now. There is plenty of room for two talented, tall and fast young corners on this team.
Update: corrected gif, h/t KnightGame