Safety first

Posted Sep 16, 2011

A similar as they are, there also are differences in the games played by Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas and Steelers strong safety Troy Polamalu – who will be on the same field in Pittsburgh on Sunday.

Despite their almost constant chirping at one another during practice, Mike Williams really does like Earl Thomas. And the Seahawks’ leading receiver last season loves what the second-year free safety brings to the defense.

But there’s one place Williams won’t go this week: Putting Thomas in the same class with Pittsburgh Steelers’ strong safety Troy Polamalu.

“No offense to Earl, but they’re just totally different guys,” said Williams, who was Polamalu’s teammate for one season at USC. “Troy is a one-of-a-kind kind of guy. There won’t be a Troy, in my eyes, to come along for quite some time.”

The comparison question has been asked, re-asked and then asked again, because the Seahawks travel to Pittsburgh this week to play the Steelers in their home opener on Sunday.

Another obvious person to ask is Pete Carroll, who coached Polamalu at USC and now is Thomas’ coach with the Seahawks. It was Carroll who pushed to make Thomas the 14th selection in last year’s NFL Draft because he possesses the speed and range that Carroll’s defense needs at free safety.

“There are some tremendous similarities,” Carroll said, but then added, “One guy’s just proven it over a long period of time and he’s a great player.

“If Earl could be so lucky somewhere down the road, six or eight years from now …” Carroll added, his voice trailing off before he completed the statement.

Williams and Carroll are not disrespecting Thomas; they’re just giving Polamalu the respect he has earned. In his first eight seasons with the Steelers, Polamalu has won two Super Bowls, been voted to six Pro Bowls and last season was named NFL defensive player of the year.

“I would compare Earl more to Ed Reed than I would Troy,” Williams said, referring to the free safety for the Baltimore Ravens who has been voted to seven Pro Bowls, was NFL defensive player of the year in 2004 and also selected to the NFL team of the decade for 2000s.

“These are both guys who are probably Hall of Famers, so it’s not dissin’ Earl in any way. Troy, I just love the guy to death and he’s a different kind of guy.”

Thomas takes no offense to the comments made by Williams or Carroll.

“I know he’s a great player. I know he’s done a lot in this league,” he said. “But I’m working to be better than that.

“You can’t take anything away from him, he’s a great player and he’s done a helluva job. Me? I’m just striving to be better than that.”

Thomas is heading in the right direction. Last season, he tied the franchise rookie record with five interceptions and also was fifth on the team with 71 tackles. In this season’s opener against the 49ers, he had eight tackles and forced the issue by making plays near the line of scrimmage.

So it’s safe to say that Thomas is as important to the Seahawks’ defense as Polamalu is the Steelers’.

“The thing that separates them and makes them and kind of makes them alike is they’re both so darn fast,” Carroll said. “It shows up all the time.”

Thomas has run 40 yards in 4.37 seconds; Polamalu in 4.33

“Some people run a 4.3 and you don’t see it,” Carroll said. “These guys, they show it on the practice field.”

Each has his own style, despite the obvious similarities.

“What Troy is so famous for is just these knifing, rocketing dives to make a tackle or to make a play on the football field and the willingness to take a chance and go for it,” Carroll said.

One such play helped recruit Williams to USC.

“When I was getting recruited, I knew who Troy was because he had a hit on Darren Sproles – when Sproles was at Kansas State – and knocked him out of the game,” Williams said. “When I was in high school, I knew that play. So Troy was a factor when I was considering SC.”

With the speed and the knockout ability also comes strength.

“Troy is the strongest guy on the team, and I really mean that – he’s the strongest guy on the team,” Williams said. “I mean I’m talking about like 600-, 700-pound squat strong.”

Then there’s the leadership ability – lead-by-example, not by volume.

“When I got to SC, Troy he kind of showed me the way,” Williams said. “Not verbally. It was just kind of how he went about his business, how he worked. So I can’t say enough good things about him.”

Which seems to be another similarity between these still-dissimilar safeties.

“When you turn the tape on, both appear to be moving at a different speed than other men on the tape,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said. “Thomas’ initial quickness, his movement to plays, his instincts – it’s unique. I think you could maybe compare them along those lines. Maybe the amount of grass that he’s capable of covering and how decisive he is when he makes a decision about going after something is very impressive.”

To which Carroll added, “They’re not the same guys at all, but they have the same fire about them – their will to be the best. So you put together a really good package – they’re both tough, they’re both really fast, they’re both really instinctive.”

It’s just that Polamalu already has been where Thomas is planning to go.