Outside of quarterback, there isn’t a position more challenging to play than offensive lineman or cornerback. You're being asked to contain the person in front of you as you move backward while they run at you full speed.
We only remember the plays each position gives up. Ambry Thomas played 62 snaps against the Bengals Sunday. He had two illegal hands to the face penalties, allowing a first down over the middle and a deep touchdown. Another long throw down the sideline could have been a touchdown, too, had Ja’Marr Chase held onto the ball to the ground.
Thomas was right 91% of the time in his first career start against a dynamic duo at wide receiver with a quarterback that has a gunslinger mentality. The narrative, which is mostly fair, is that Thomas did not play well against Cincinnati.
This is a brutal business.
Let’s walk through a series of plays from the middle of the fourth quarter and on before Thomas left the game and entered the concussion protocol. First, Thomas gave up a slant underneath. The throwing window was bigger than it was supposed to be because K’Waun Williams didn’t make it out to the flat in time. It looks bad on Thomas, but he needs the slot defender to make the read for the quarterback more difficult.
A couple of plays later, Thomas makes an impressive open-field tackle on a screen pass. Nick Bosa’s first sack was due to Thomas taking away Tyler Boyd on the ensuing drive. Joe Burrow was looking at Boyd, who was covered, and once he went to another read, Bosa was in his former teammates' face.
On the big third-down reception to Tee Higgins on the game-tying drive by the Bengals, it would have been difficult for Thomas to be any closer in coverage. Check this out:
Thomas was in trail coverage and had perfect leverage, but the throw and catch were perfect and on time. Good offense beats good defense every day of the week.
Finally, Thomas didn’t initially bite on the slant on Chase's double-move. He gets himself in trouble when Thomas gets caught looking back into the backfield instead of turning and running with Chase. You slow yourself down when you’re looking back. The difference was that half step or full step Thomas lost by looking back.
Kyle Shanahan said Thomas did “some really good things on Monday.” Here’s what Shanahan said about Thomas’s performance:
“I liked how he looked out there. I thought it was the best that I’ve seen him look, the way he was throwing his body around, made some tackles. I thought he was really good in his jams off the line of scrimmage. So good that he got two penalties from it. He’s just got to lower his target area because he was jamming the receivers as good as I feel like we’ve had at keeping them from getting off the line. And he had two, one that slipped up to the face mask, one that hit the guy in the chin, which were penalties.
But I liked his intent on the plays. He wasn’t trying to hide, he was putting himself out there and going against a real good receiver who got him a couple times, but I thought there was a number of times he covered real well that you don’t see the ball thrown there because he is covering well. First game and there’s a lot to learn from it, but I was very encouraged with it.”
Growing pains for a rookie are inevitable. I’m not sure there’s a worse matchup on the schedule for a rookie cornerback than the Bengals offense and how they attack. Thomas was in position all game. The penalties are unforgivable but, are also unlikely to happen again.
Will Thomas give up another touchdown this season? A big play? Of course, he will. But, that comes with the nature of the position. Thomas was in position on the majority of his coverage snaps. That, and not the plays' result, is the bigger takeaway from his performance.
After re-watching the game, I came away thinking Thomas has a better chance of being a potential starter than someone we can write off as a bust. Remember, those guys get paid on the other side of the ball. So if he can turn those close coverages into incompletions and break up those 50/50 balls, he’ll be fine.
Cornerback is all about confidence. Thomas never wavered or backed down against two high-end receivers. I’m willing to bet he’ll look a lot better against a Falcons team that lacks the same firepower on the outside as the Bengals. Honestly, Thomas doesn’t have to play any different outside of the penalties. Once he makes a play, I imagine we’ll see a better version of Thomas.
Let’s judge the rookie once he has a few starts under his belt. The 49ers' patience should pay off if they continue to roll with Thomas.