Earl Thomas expanding his already All-Pro game

Posted Sep 19, 2013

After three seasons as one of the best free safeties in the NFL, the Seahawks’ Earl Thomas is out to prove that he is indeed the best safety in the league. So far, the proof has been in his production.

The two biggest plays in the defense-driven victories to open the Seahawks’ season have been turned in by the smallest member of the NFL’s top-ranked unit.

With less than six minutes to play in the season opener in Charlotte, the Panthers were driving to what could have been a go-ahead touchdown. Until, that is, All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas forced a fumble that was recovered by defensive tackle Tony McDaniel at the Seahawks’ 8-yard line. The Seahawks held on for a 12-7 victory.

Less than seven minutes into Sunday night’s nationally televised home opener at CenturyLink Field, the defending NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers had a first-and-goal from the Seahawks’ 9-yard and were in position to score the first points of the game. Until, that is, the 5-foot-10, 202-pound Thomas intercepted a third-down pass that had been deflected by cornerback Walter Thurmond at the goal line and returned it 11 yards. The 49ers wouldn’t score until the third quarter as the Seahawks rolled to a 29-3 victory.

Coincidence? Or conscious efforts that have led to Thomas being in the right place at the most-timely of right times?

All part of Thomas’ grand plan to become the best safety in the league – if he isn’t already. In his first three seasons, since being the 14th pick overall in the 2010 NFL Draft, Thomas has been voted to the Pro Bowl twice (2011 and 2012) and All-Pro once (last season). He has finished in the Top 5 in tackles and passes defensed in each of those seasons on a constantly improving defense, including career highs with 92 tackles in 2011 and nine passes defensed last season.

Entering Sunday’s game against the Jacksonville Jaguars at CenturyLink Field, Thomas ranks second in tackles (13) and first in big plays (see above) on a defense that leads the NFL in points allowed (10), average yards allowed (230.0), passing yards allowed (113.0), turnovers (seven) and turnover differential (plus-5).

The lead-by-example leader of this group? The guy who is the shortest and among the lightest, not to mention also one of the youngest (24).

As good as Thomas has been, he is driven to be even better – or do it better than it’s ever been done before, as coach Pete Carroll likes to put it.

“I think during the offseason I matured from a little boy to a man, on and off the field,” Thomas said. “It feels great just to see it paying off for me and all my hard work. A lot of the stuff that I couldn’t do last year, I’m definitely doing it this year.”

And Thomas is doing without what had been his trademark dreads flowing from underneath his helmet, which he cut during the offseason as a visual sign of his maturity. He’s also doing it as a father, as his daughter, Kaleigh Rose, was born last September. And he’s doing it in the proper spirit, as well.

“Just the mentality,” Thomas said when asked what all this has been rooted in. “You want to prove everybody wrong. And obviously you want to be the best, not only in the NFL but on the defense. You’re competing in any way you can. You just want to have your ‘A’ game at all times.”

Ah, competition. It’s what Carroll’s coaching philosophy is based upon. It’s what’s helping separate Thomas and his defensive mates from the rest. Even in the starting secondary. They’ve dubbed themselves the “Legion of Boom” and they lower that boom on a regular basis. As much camaraderie as there is between Thomas and All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman and Pro Bowl-caliber strong safety Kam Chancellor and Pro Bowl-caliber cornerback Brandon Browner, it’s their friendly competition that really fuels this foursome.

“I think it’s more of the competitive nature,” Thomas said through a sly smile. “When you’ve got guys that want to be the best, we compete with each other secretly. I’m going to say it on the record that I’m competing.”

Sometimes that competitive nature isn’t so secret. Like after the season opener. Thomas got credit for forcing that critical fourth-quarter fumble, but Sherman also was around the play. When it was suggested in the locker room at Bank of America Stadium that it didn’t matter who had forced the play the team needed to win a close game, Thomas smiled, looked at Sherman and offered, “What really matters is that I got credit for the play.”

Thomas isn’t just making plays, he playing differently. Rather than always lining up deep as a true centerfielder free safety, you’ll often see Thomas closer to the line of scrimmage.

Gus Bradley, the Seahawks’ defensive coordinator the past four seasons and now head coach of the Jaguars, definitely noticed the difference while studying video this week.

“I was with the offensive staff and I said, ‘What’s ‘Deuce’ doing there? He can’t do that,’ ” said Bradley, using the nickname he gave Thomas.

But there Thomas is – and there, and over there, too. Thomas said the changes have come from self-scouting, and are supported by his own speed and the coverage ability of the Seahawks cornerbacks.

“Coach Carroll is kind of getting on me a little bit about, ‘Man, I think you probably need to deepen up a bit.’ But I trust my ability,” Thomas said. “I think I’m the best safety in the game and I’m going to keep playing like that.

“Speed kills. And I feel I can cover a lot of space on the field and I’m going to keep proving that week-in and week-out.”

Thurmond, who has been starting while Browner is recovering from a hamstring injury, also has noticed the change in Thomas’ game.

“Everything that we’ve seen from Earl in the past years is just him and his athletic ability,” Thurmond said. “He’s starting to mature. He’s starting to slow his game down. He’s not only out there and just trying to make every play, he’s really got attention to detail for his assignment and then the plays come to him.

“That’s the biggest thing that has happened for Earl right now. He’s just playing more disciplined than he was when he first got here. The athletic ability is always going to be the same, but just him not being as reckless – at least from the outside looking in – his game is just improving. He’s still the same player; he’s just a lot more calm and poised out there.” 

With Thomas, as well as the rest of the defense, the proof is in the production (by them) and lack of production (by the opposition).

“ ‘Deuce’ is playing with a lot of confidence – a lot of confidence,” Bradley said. “He’s really on it, as far as being in the back end. It looks like he’s playing a little bit closer to the line of scrimmage, challenging some things. It shows me he has a lot of confidence in the guys on the perimeter.

“He’s just around the ball a lot more. You can just see his comfort level in the defense. This is his fourth year in it now. He’s really got a good grasp for it. ‘Deuce’ is one of the guys that I really took to and think the world of. To see him playing at that level is great for him.”

Not to mention the league’s top-rated defense.