The All-22: Closing speed makes Seahawks’ Earl Thomas the NFL’s best safety
The NFL has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and the safety position is one that has perhaps changed most with it. In days of yore, safeties were enforcers, the guys you didn’t want to mess with under any circumstances — the guys who would meet you across the middle with murderous intent. From Jack Tatum to Steve Atwater, safeties used to be known primarily for their ability to hit in space — to be the downhill free-rangers.
Coverage was also an important concern (especially deep coverage against vertical offenses), but the requirements of the position are far more expansive now. Some NFL teams don’t really differentiate between free and strong safeties now — they want interchangeable guys who can do everything from back-half coverage to force defender roles against the run. For those teams that clearly differentiate between free and strong, the free safety is tasked to cover more ground than ever before.
The exponential growth of multi-receiver sets and fast option quarterbacks leaves these players in great demand if they have the athleticism, instincts and football intelligence to play many parts at a high level. When the New Orleans Saints selected Texas safety Kenny Vacarro in the first round of the 2013 draft, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan immediately put him all over the field, and Vacarro was impressive in his ability to pick it up. Having that one player able to keep the logical extensions of an offense under control allows other defenders to play their parts without over-extending.
Of course, safeties are the guys you rarely see unless they’re coming up to make kill-shots. Before All-22 angles became available to the general public, fans had to guess what safeties were doing a lot of the time because broadcasts wouldn’t fan out to show them 20 yards off the line of scrimmage (it’s far more important to get two seconds of the quarterback’s eyes pre-snap than to show the formations, right?). But people in and around the league have picked up on the trend.
The AP Defensive Player of the Year award was established in 1971, and in the first 23 years, only two safeties nabbed the honor — Dick Anderson of the Miami Dolphins in 1973 and Kenny Easley of the Seattle Seahawks in 1984 (Surprised that Ronnie Lott never won it? Me, too). But in the last 10 years, three safeties have won it — Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens in 2004, Bob Sanders of the Indianapolis Colts in 2007 and Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010.
Each of those three players could lay the wood with the best of them, but what these new safeties have to possess is an uncanny knack for closing on huge areas of the field with scary speed, and making impact plays that other players simply couldn’t. At their peaks, those players combined cornerback speed with safety abandon in entirely new ways.
In the 2010 draft, the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks were looking for new defenders to help define their teams. The Chiefs took Tennessee safety Eric Berry with the fifth overall pick, and the Seahawks took Texas safety Earl Thomas with the 14th pick. At that time, I viewed Berry as by far the more complete player of the two — he was not as fast or rangy as Thomas (who some teams projected as an NFL cornerback), but he had a certainty when he tackled that Thomas did not. Thomas seemed to me to be more the Jairus Byrd type — the elite center fielder but not the first guy you’d want to be in on a run fit.
Fast-forward a few seasons later, and Berry has lived up to his promise when healthy. It’s Thomas, however, whom I find more interesting. His development as a tackler over his NFL career — particularly in the last two seasons — is something that has gone relatively unnoticed, but it’s real, and it screams off the tape. Now Thomas isn’t just a great cover safety from anywhere to anywhere on the field, he’s also turned himself into a Scud missile, able to take ridiculous angles and read plays with microscopic precision.
This was never more evident that in Seattle’s 14-9 win over the St. Louis Rams on Monday night. The game itself was an ugly win for the Seahawks, but Thomas had what I would consider to be a signature performance. On a national stage, he proved himself to be every bit the equal of Reed, Polamalu, and Sanders. And because the overhead view is now readily available, we can see it in ways we would not have 10 years ago.
When I posited to head coach Pete Carroll that Thomas’ night against the Rams was a watershed moment, he stopped short of that — perhaps because he’s seen Thomas’ development in ways most people haven’t, and it was less of a surprise to him.
“He played a really complete football game,” Carroll told me. “He had a lot of opportunities to make physical plays, real explosive plays that he kind of specializes in with his quickness and his mentality of going after stuff. It was just a complete football game, is what he played. He might have had six or seven highlight plays in the game of just firing up and making big-time tackles and it was really cool to see him do that. He was a big part of the goal-line situation too down there. He did a great job.”
The goal-line situation Carroll referred to was the Rams’ four-play gambit at the end of the game. St. Louis had first-and-goal from the Seattle six-yard line with 46 seconds left in the game, and Thomas made two huge plays to secure the Seahawks’ successful goal-line stand. Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens threw an uncompleted pass to Austin Pettis on the right side of the end zone on first down, and the Rams came back with halfback Daryl Richardson on a draw out of the Pistol formation that would have been a touchdown had Thomas not come up from deep in the end zone (about two yards from the goalpost) to make the stop at the two-yard line. Seahawks end Chris Clemons was flagged for defensive offside on the next play, which gave the Rams third-and-goal at the Seattle 1. St. Louis had been gashing Seattle’s defense all night with its rushing attack, but Richardson wouldn’t do it on this play, and it had everything to to with Thomas.
As you can see pre-snap, Thomas is so far outside in coverage, he’s not even in the EndZone cam shot. You have to go to the overhead to even make him out, and with the Rams one yard away from scoring, you’d assume there’s no way Thomas makes the deciding tackle. But he took the right angle, closed in and got Richardson just behind the line of scrimmage. Kudos to reserve linebacker Heath Farwell for making the initial hit, but it was Thomas who made the stop.