Thomas, the second time around

Posted Dec 10, 2011

Free safety Earl Thomas was good enough in his rookie season for the Seahawks. But he is playing even better this season, despite what his interception number might indicate.

In their last game, the Seahawks intercepted a season-high four passes, the most they’ve had in a game since 2007. And Earl Thomas had none.

In their past four games, the Seahawks have intercepted eight passes, after picking off nine in their first eight games. And Earl Thomas has none.

Twice the Seahawks have returned interceptions for touchdowns to ice victories – Brandon Browner’s club-record 94-yarder in the Week 5 upset of the New York Giants and David Hawthorne’s 77-yarder that slapped an exclamation point on the convincing win over the Philadelphia Eagles 10 days ago. And Earl Thomas? None, again.

Hawthorne, the team’s middle linebacker, has three times as any interceptions as Thomas, and 330-pound defensive end Red Bryant has just as many as the team’s free safety.

What’s wrong with this picture? Nothing.

Despite the fact that last year’s leader in interceptions has only one entering Monday night’s nationally televised game against the St. Louis Rams at CenturyLink Field, the second-year free safety has improved his game from his rookie season.

“I know Earl hasn’t had the picks, but he is playing better,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “He’s playing more disciplined football for us.”

Coach Pete Carroll was stressing that aspect of Thomas’ ample game even while he was tying the franchise record for interceptions by a rookie last season. While the coaches loved his ability to roam and make plays as a centerfielder, they would like it even better if Thomas did a better job of playing within the defense.

That definitely has been the case this season, as Thomas is second on the team in tackles (76, two behind Hawthorne; and five more than Thomas had all of last season) and almost always is one of the first names mentioned when discussing the improvement in the overall play of the defense.

As former nine-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch put it when he was in town to work a game as analyst for Fox earlier this season, “Earl, he’s a flash. Every time I’ve got the film on, I think I’m in fast forward. They I realize that’s just him. He’s got tremendous instincts. I met with him the first week of the season and he realized there were a lot of things he needed to get better at. He’s worked hard at them. I think he’s got a very, very bright future. He’s got as much range as any safety I’ve seen. (Former Redskins safety) Sean Taylor is the last guy with that kind of range and the ability to get from centerfield over to the sideline.”

Thomas wants to get his hands on the ball as much as anyone – likely more. He did, after all, pick off eight passes his final season at Texas to break Jerry Gray’s single-season school record. Then there were the five picks last season, to tie the Seahawks’ rookie record set by Michael Boulware in 2005.

But Thomas also realizes that the game from his position is not all about interceptions.

“My whole mindset is just to make everybody on defense better,” he said. “My better ways might not be seen by everybody out there, but everybody on the team knows. So me playing in the box (closer to the line of scrimmage and between the tackles), I haven’t been able to roam as much. But it hasn’t really affected me.

“I just try to do better in other areas. Like get more tackles.”

Thomas has led the team in tackles three times this season, and has one of the Seahawks’ four games with double-digit tackles – 10 against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 8. In the Week 10 upset of Baltimore, Thomas (eight tackles and a pass defensed) outplayed an ailing Ed Reed (two tackles), the Ravens’ Pro Bowl safety.

So being left out of the recent interception glut that has sparked the Seahawks’ 3-1 surge to open the second half of the season isn’t gnawing at Thomas’ hyper-competitive nature?

“That’s all that matters. As long as the team is winning and everybody is happy, I’m good,” he said.

Actually, Thomas has been much better than good – which is why a lot of quarterbacks have been throwing away from his side this season.

“A lot of balls aren’t coming my way,” he said. “I feel like if a quarterback sees me on one side of the field, he’ll check to the other side and – boom – we’re in a good coverage against what they’ve got. I’m just happy to see other people eat.”

Like strong safety Kam Chancellor and Browner, who share the team lead with four interceptions; and Hawthorne, with his three; and cornerback Richard Sherman, who has two in the past four games after stepping in as the third option on the left side.

“I know my time will come,” Thomas said.

Until then, he’ll just keep on keeping on with that enhanced overall game that is such a large part of the improved and improving defense.

“I just know the defense better,” Thomas the second-year starter said, comparing himself to Thomas the first-year starter. “I understand what kind of quarterback I’m facing, what they’re trying to do to us. I spent a lot of time with Gus, just so we’ll be on the same page. Obviously he’s calling the play for a reason and I want to know why.

“And the game has slowed down a lot for me. I’m able to recognize stuff. And I feel like I’ve been playing at a high level.”

Thomas’ maturity level also is reflected in the way he is approaching his first chance to play on “Monday Night Football,” which he watched religiously while growing up in Orange, Texas.

“I’m pumped to be on primetime, just to show everybody what we’ve got,” he said. “But it’s no big deal to me. I feel like the playoff game last year against the Saints that kind of got me ready for everything. So it’s just a regular game for me. It’s just that it’s on primetime.”

And Thomas, regardless of his decreased interception numbers, definitely is a primetime player.

“I tell him, ‘You’re going to get your opportunities, Earl. You’re going to get your opportunities. Just keep doing what you’re doing,’ ” Bradley said. “And he’s fine with it. Obviously, they all want their chances, but he knows the importance of playing his techniques and that helps those corners, as well.”

And who knows, with the Rams likely to start No. 3 quarterback Tom Brandstater because Sam Bradford and A.J. Feeley are injuries, and just-as-likely scenario of the Seahawks containing Steven Jackson and forcing the Rams to throw, Thomas’ opportunity could come on Monday night. And in primetime. And at the most opportune time.