JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Kam Chancellor is imposing. He’s a strong safety that looks like he should be playing linebacker and the hardest hitter in the best secondary in the NFL.
What is setting Chancellor apart is his ability to still be intimidating but do it within the framework of the NFL wanting to protect defenseless offensive players.
It’s a tricky line and one that Chancellor struggled with earlier in his career. But he’s found a way to accomplish the task of being an enforcer minus the penalties, both on the field and in the bank account.
“I don’t think it’s a matter of adjusting. It’s just learning how to tackle, the proper technique to tackle,” Chancellor said. “Once you learn the proper technique to tackle you can get your feet under you and you can explode through anybody.”
His play is being recognized outside of just Seattle. He was Pro Bowl selection and a second-team All-Pro this season. Chancellor was also the first member of Seattle’s secondary to be locked up long term when he signed a four-year extension last April.
“He’s been the best player on our defense the whole season I think,” teammate Michael Bennett said. “I think he’s one of the best players in the NFL. I’m surprised he’s not up for defensive player of the year. When he tackles, he’s just amazing.”
Chancellor’s ability to be imposing was evident on two plays in the NFC championship game against San Francisco. In the third quarter, Chancellor leveled tight end Vernon Davis on a short pass that caused an incompletion. The form was perfect, with Chancellor’s helmet at the level of Davis’ midsection and his shoulder pads planted on his chest.
Fast forward to the fourth quarter and San Francisco’s final drive. Facing a third-and-2, Colin Kaepernick threw a pass for Michael Crabtree on a quick slant. As Crabtree cut for the middle, Chancellor was there waiting. Not surprisingly, Crabtree’s arms didn’t quite fully extend and he let the pass go incomplete.
“I know if I was coming across the middle about to catch a ball I would be looking for 31,” Bennett said.
Chancellor’s schooling came from one of the hardest hitters in the NFL. As a rookie, he followed around veteran Lawyer Milloy and attempted to glean every bit of experience the 15-year veteran was trying to pass on to the next generation of strong safeties.
What neither knew at the time was a shift toward player safety that changed how all defensive players — and safeties especially — would play. No longer would certain hits be tolerated, let alone celebrated.
Changes had to be made.
“Kam has really, really complied. He’s taken it to heart,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said. “The early fines got his attention, but really he just wanted to be able to find a way to play the game really well and he was willing. He wasn’t hard headed about it at all. He went about it with kind of a sense that I’m kind of going to really adjust so that I can do this well and do it right and he’s done all of that and the exciting part of it is he’s maintained his physical style and he’s a great hitter and he’s always looking for big opportunities. He’s been able to do that.”
Chancellor was flagged four times this season for personal fouls. Twice he was penalized for being the last guy into the pile on a running play. The first came in the season opener against Carolina and the second in the regular-season finale against St. Louis. He was also called for facemask in Week 16.
The only time during the regular season in 47 passes thrown his way — according to STATS, Inc. — that Chancellor was flagged for hitting a defenseless receiver came in Week 15 against the New York Giants on a hit that didn’t even knock wide receiver Jerrel Jernigan to the turf.
Aside from the big hits, Chancellor has become better in coverage. He was partly responsible for Seattle shutting down tight ends Davis and Jimmy Graham on multiple occasions this season. He’s likely to get time on yet another athletic tight end Sunday with Denver’s Julius Thomas having become a favorite target of Peyton Manning.
“The best way to deal with a hard hitting safety is to try not to let him hit you. I’m ready for a physical game, I’m anticipating it,” Thomas said. “All those guys, they fly after the ball, they have good pursuit as a team, the team tackles as a bunch. You’re just going to try to keep guys from hitting you with big shots.”
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