Playing cornerback is like boxing, Rashard Robinson said this week: “Sometimes you might be hit. It’s always about how you come back from it.”
Using that analogy, it looked like it was time to stop the fight early in the 49ers’ preseason opener on Friday.
Playing aggressive press coverage — one of the earmarks of San Francisco’s new defense — Robinson whiffed when trying to jam Chiefs receiver Tyreek Hill on the game’s first play. Hill blew past him for a 32-yard reception.
Robinson later badly missed a tackle, was in coverage on an 83-yard touchdown that was nullified by offensive pass interference, then gave up a 29-yard catch at the sideline. All of that happened in the first six minutes of the contest.
His coaches, however, have focused not on his miscues but on how he responded to those blows.
On the snap that followed the 29-yard gain, the rail-thin cornerback encountered 227-pound running back Spencer Ware at the line of scrimmage and dropped him for no gain. Two plays after that, he backpedaled into the flat and intercepted a pass from Chiefs backup Tyler Bray.
“For a young guy, 22 years old, to have all that happen to him and to show the resolve, the fight, and the dog that we’ve talked about with him — for me that stamped everything that Rashard’s going to be for us,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He’s going to be a very good corner.”
“Dog” is a term you hear from players and coaches. It roughly translates to tenacity or scrappiness. It’s a compliment and Robinson definitely has it in abundance.
The 49ers’ other starting cornerback, Dontae Johnson, is more reserved. So is third-round pick Ahkello Witherspoon. Eric Reid, the starting free safety, is the responsible one. He’s like the dad of the secondary group.
Robinson is the firebrand, the agitator. He likes to chirp at offensive players and get his defensive mates’ blood stirring. He brings an element of swagger to the mix. Which is why the 49ers like him.
The archetype for the position is the Seahawks’ Richard Sherman, who plays with a Gibraltar-sized chip on his shoulder and is his team’s instigator. The 49ers aspire to be like the Seahawks, to play with their aggression and relentlessness, to have their dominance.
Part of that transformation is finding players who can ramp up the intensity. That’s one of the reasons the 49ers fell in love with linebacker Reuben Foster in the draft. And it’s why they think Robinson will be such a good fit as well.
“I’m there to get everybody going” Robinson said. “I always got that motor going. Once you start doing that and everybody else starts feeding off of that, then it’s just going to be like a culture, and everybody will start buying into that. It’s just getting everybody better.”
Of course, the 49ers also need Robinson to mimic the way Sherman plays.
While most defenses have two safeties in coverage, San Francisco’s typically sends its strong safety toward the line of scrimmage to act as a quasi linebacker. That leaves the free safety alone on the back end. His responsibility is to defend passes down the seams and to take away any throws — crossing routs, post routes, etc. — in the middle of the field.
Which leaves the cornerbacks the sidelines, the area where Robinson had so much trouble against the Chiefs on Friday.
Saleh’s explanation: Maybe the second-year player had a little too much dog in him early on.
“The first play of the game, he’s gung-ho, he’s ready to roll, he’s up there in press on Tyreke Hill who’s the fastest receiver in the league, All-Pro,” Saleh said. “He’s excited, he gets beat. But, what I was most excited about, because corners get beat in this league, it happens, every single corner is going to get beat. But not every corner can respond the way he did.”