The All-22: Closing speed makes Seahawks’ Earl Thomas the NFL’s best safety
Thomas had been making an impact all through the game, though — and sometimes, it the mere threat of a tackle that did the job. With 5:22 left in the first quarter, the Rams had a third-and-15 at the Seattle 24, and they ran a three-wide set with the X and Z receivers outside the numbers — they really wanted to stretch Seattle’s defense out. The Seahawks responded with nickel coverage, with Thomas and Kam Chancellor as the deep safeties. Clemens hit receiver Chris Givens on a quick in route from the far left side, and Thomas somehow bailed in all the way from the other deep side of the field to limit the play to a nine-yard gain. He torpedoed over Givens, who managed to slip and fall to the ground at just the right time to avoid the hit. Had Givens been able to continue inside, he probably would have made the first down — and maybe more.
Thomas’ pure range, read abilities and closing burst were perhaps best displayed with 6:31 left in the third quarter. This time, the Rams had second-and-9 at the Seattle 24. Clemens could find nothing open against Seattle’s nickel man coverage and started to scramble. Thomas was the sole deep defender because Chancellor came up pre-snap in a blitz look. When Clemens started running, Thomas was at the Seattle four-yard line between the hashes, and he somehow made it to the left sideline to buzz Clemens and stop him for a six-yard gain. It was another situation in which a Rams skill position player would have had at least a first down were it not for Thomas violating all sorts of speed limits.
“Aw, man — that was unbelievable,” cornerback Richard Sherman later said of that play. “But it’s Earl. He’s the kind of player that makes unbelievable plays look routine on the daily. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh my God. He came out of nowhere.’ But we were like, ‘Well. He does that all the time.’ And he’ll say it in practice. He’ll say, ‘If that was a game, I would’ve got you.’ He’ll say it to [quarterback] Russell [Wilson], and then Russell will laugh. But he’s totally serious and he came out of the middle of the field. He came out of the deep third. His reaction and his speed gives him the ability to be anywhere, at any time.”
“The speed has always been there,” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Thursday when asked how Thomas has grown as a player. “You felt how fast he practiced. The experience of seeing the routes and now being able to play the technique, where before he might have just reacted when the play happened to now, he understands. You’ll hear him talking on the field in terms of a split or an alignment or a formation, that’s the biggest thing I see. Because the intensity, the desire, the will has always been there with him. You saw that at Texas, and then it carried into his first year, how hard he practiced and played. Now, the added factor of experience and the recognition … that’s the biggest difference.”
And that’s the larger point. You can’t make these kinds of plays on a consistent basis without an elevated sense of the field. Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin told me this week that Thomas was the one who alerted him to the route that resulted in his interception in the Rams game, and Irvin also said that Thomas helped cornerback Brandon Browner with placement on at least one impact play. Sherman, Browner’s bookend in the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” secondary, was especially effusive about Thomas’ development.
“He’s one of the most locked-in football players I have ever seen and you can see his dedication and his focus to the game every single day. He’s having a career year, and it’s because it’s something that he’s focused on. He’s focused on making open field tackles, catching the picks. You know he was disappointed in certain facets of his game last year, and he works harder than anyone to fix them and he’s doing that … The way he tackles, the way he attacks, tackling in the open field. Shoot, he’s saved maybe three or four touchdowns just the last game. Coming up, making tackles when we needed him to. He’s also focused on the interceptions. He felt like he dropped a couple last year. Now, he’s freaking catching everything that comes his way, and I think that’s helping our ball club.”
Thomas isn’t generally one to talk about himself, though he said this week that he believes he’s a legitimate contender for that Defensive Player of the Year award this season. It’s tough to argue against his candidacy.