SEATTLE—Earl Thomas knew he made a mistake before Texans receiver Will Fuller V had even reached the end zone.
One of the best safeties of his era, Thomas has made a career out of all but eliminating big plays over the middle of the field, but on the Houston Texans' fifth play of the game, he momentarily got too aggressive, expecting Texans rookie Deshaun Watson to throw an intermediate pass, and that brief miscalculation allowed the speedy Fuller to run free past rookie Shaquill Griffin and into open space—space that should have been occupied by Thomas—resulting in a 59-yard touchdown.
"I was just being aggressive," Thomas said. "… That was on me. I knew it was a deep threat, the matchup was against the rook, I've got to understand that. I just got too greedy right there for the over route. Kam (Chancellor) was right there in perfect position; I've got to trust Kam and stay back."
Of course, Thomas wouldn't be one of the game's best defensive players if he let a single play on the first possession of the game define his afternoon. And on a day when offenses traded blows throughout, Thomas provided the biggest defensive play for the Seahawks, intercepting Watson on Houston's next possession and returning the pick 78 yards for his fourth career touchdown.
On that play, Thomas had the freedom to jump the route on a pass intended for DeAndre Hopkins, and once he committed to the play, he used his blazing speed to beat Hopkins to the ball, then break free in the open field.
"Beautiful, it's a great call," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "(Defensive coordinator) Kris (Richard) makes a great call right there, gives him a chance, but it's the finesse—(Thomas) kind of lurked back in there to find his spot and fit in just perfectly and put it in the end zone."
Yet as much as Thomas' athleticism came through on that play, it was very much a play set up by film study during the week as much as it was one that relied on speed and ball skills.
"I kind of banked on my preparation, I banked on what I thought he would do, and it happened," Thomas said. "… Just a savvy vet move."
If you ever happen to find yourself in the Seahawks locker room before or after practice during the week, odds are good that if Thomas is there, he'll be focused on a tablet, headphones on, studying the Seahawks' next opponent. That preparation paid off in a big way Sunday.
"He just studies film," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "Earl is probably obsessed with studying film. There is nobody that studies it more than him. He read the play all the way, and it was a great play. It was everything that he saw on film and that he practiced."
Thomas' big play was particularly important because it came on a rare rough day at the office for Seattle's defense.
"It was hard," Carroll said. "We didn't do very well today."
Yet the Seahawks didn't give up 38 points and 509 yards of offense because they suddenly forgot to play defense; the Texans, and especially their rookie quarterback Watson, played exceptionally well.
"Thankfully, we made plays when we needed them," said Sherman, who had two interceptions, including one in the final minute to seal the victory. "Earl's pick-6 started the game off right. We gave up that play early in the game that we shouldn't have. It was kind of lackadaisical in the first half, but he came back with a pick-6, and the rest is history. You have to give them credit, their offensive coordinator, their quarterback, they executed.
"I think overall we're a great group. We're as good as we've ever been. We have to clean some things up, some simple mistakes, some over routes, some hook adjustments and things like that. But this guy, you have to give him credit. You have to give Deshaun Watson all the credit in the world. He played a fantastic game. You can't take nothing away from that."
Watson finished the game completing 19 of 30 attempts for 402 yards, four touchdowns and three interceptions, and while Thomas got the best of the rookie on one play, he wasn't surprised to see Watson, with whom he shares an agent, have a successful day even against one of the league's best defenses.
"I'm not surprised at all," Thomas said. "I think I ran my mouth too much this summer when we chilled. We've got the same agent, we spent a lot of time together. I expected that out of him. He did it against Alabama in a big game. He tried to do it today, he had some success."
Unfortunately for Thomas, his game ended early due to a hamstring injury sustained on Houston's penultimate possession. Carroll said after the game that they did not yet know the severity of the injury, but Thomas said he hoped to go back into the game for Houston's last possession.
"They didn't let me," Thomas said. "I tried to go, and the coaches just didn't let me."