In a purely defensive battle last Sunday, Seattle Seahawks' free safety Earl Thomas was one of the premier stars to behold. He was all over the field making plays and nearly came away with two interceptions.
Versus the Arizona Cardinals, Thomas lined up as the deep free safety, but also played a fair bit of man coverage in the slot and occasionally outside covering running back (31) David Johnson. In this game in particular, it was his range as a free safety and his intelligence that helped him close down throwing lanes.
In the first quarter, the Seahawks played man-to-man coverage with Thomas lining up in the slot. Brittan Golden runs an out-route to the 32-yard line where Thomas aggressively tracks and hits the receiver as the ball is arriving preventing him from bringing in the pass.
Thomas' range is what saved the team from defeat late in the overtime period while Arizona was knocking on Seattle’s door, running the ball at the five-yard line.
David Johnson bounces this “dive” running play outside, setting up the Seahawks' defenders by stepping up into the line of scrimmage before cutting outside. Johnson's hesitation and partial cut inside are what helped free the edge.
Instead of allowing the game-winning score, Thomas sprints all the way from outside the right tackle to knock Johnson out-of-bounds before he can cross the goal line.
On both of these plays, Thomas' range stopped the Cardinals from being successful.
Thomas is literally the team’s safety valve. He prevented a deep pass down the field after Richard Sherman bit hard on a play-action fake that opened up the deep right portion of the field.
Seattle is in their “Cover 3” defense while the two receivers on the left side of Arizona’s formation run a seam and post-route, respectively, to stretch the defense.
Earl Thomas stays in the path of Michael Floyd, allowing DeShawn Shead to cover the speedy J.J. Nelson with outside technique. Thomas gains depth, correctly reading Carson Palmer before turning hips towards Nelson.
The pass is well inside of the receiver which doesn't allow him to make a play on the ball, but Thomas' intelligence can definitely be seen here and is the reason the Cardinals couldn’t capitalize on Sherman’s mistake.
Thomas always seems to be in the right place at the right time and he almost recorded two interceptions because of it. The first near-interception was actually caught by him in the second quarter, however, Sherman was called for holding. This penalty negated the pick after the ball deflected off of David Johnson's finger tips.
The second interception opportunity was completely due to his intelligence and relentless film study by Thomas.
He sees the Cardinals have three wide receivers in a trips formation on the left side of the formation. After the snap, one of the receivers runs a seam route while the other runs a snag route. With the blitz, (11) Larry Fitzgerald is the hot read on the left side of the field. Thomas reads this while accelerating between the blockers and almost pulls in the pass for a potential game-changing interception.
The only way Thomas could have recognized this play was due to his dedication in the film room. Without that, he wouldn’t have been able to make this play on Sunday.
The final positive play, I want to leave you with was his pass breakup in the second quarter with just over four minutes remaining.
Earl Thomas plays as an underneath sideline defender in the Seahawks' “Cover 3 zone dog blitz.” For those not familiar with a "zone dog blitz", the terminology simply refers to a zone defense (typically pattern-match) combined with a blitz. The blitzer in this play was (54) Bobby Wagner.
After the snap, Thomas knows that he has the underneath sideline role but since David Johnson is the second man through his zone, his responsibility in this coverage is to carry his receiver up the sideline.
Johnson runs an out-n-up trying to create space on a fake head turn after the out-portion of his route. Thomas doesn't fall for it and sticks to the running back’s hip pocket down the sideline. The pass is slightly underthrown and a bit too far inside for Johnson to make a play on it, but it allows Thomas to turn and locate the pass to deflect it.
Normally you like to see your defender turn his body around and reach for the ball, but as Thomas clearly has been playing safety for most of his NFL career the mechanics are rusty and he reverts to an over-the-shoulder catch attempt that falls incomplete.
Thomas is one of the best safeties in the NFL because of how he combines his intelligence and athleticism to lead this defensive secondary. While a very good player, he isn't perfect and there were certainly times during this game where his mistakes could have been costly.
The first issue I saw on tape was his poor angles in open space. This happened last week too when he took an awful first step versus Julio Jones on the final controversial play, which is what allowed Jones to burn right past him into the open field (here).
This same issue can be seen in the third quarter with 32 seconds remaining. If (35) DeShawn Shead doesn't finish his tackle on (14) J.J. Nelson this is at least another 20 yards and maybe more depending on Thomas' recovery or Richard Sherman's awareness down the field.
Like in the Jones’ pass attempt, it was his first step up the field that instantly put him in poor position after the catch.
Here's another example in run defense as Thomas runs right past the running back. Thomas has to recognize that Frank Clark has a tendency to blow past his responsibility in open space. Even if he doesn't see that he has to see that Clark has outside leverage with his hips facing past the running back which should give him a clue to take a more conservative angle.
The other issue I saw in Thomas' game this past Sunday was his tendency to lower his shoulder as opposed to wrapping up. While this doesn’t happen all the time, it happens enough for me to make note of it.
In this play, Thomas speeds to the edge and attempts to shoulder tackle Johnson by the 29-yard line. He misses and allows Johnson to escape for an additional 15 yards up the sideline. He needs to slow down prior to contact and square his shoulders to make a technique-sound tackle on the running back.
Neither of these issues ended up destroying the Seahawks' chances, but they are certainly things he needs to be mindful in the future.
In this game, the positive plays drastically outnumbered the negative plays. Earl Thomas was fantastic showing the range of a true free safety and will only benefit more when Kam Chancellor returns healthy to the lineup.
Next week Seattle plays the New Orleans Saints. While the Saints are 2-4, their games have still been competitive due to Drew Brees’ ability to make plays down the field. Earl Thomas will certainly need to be on top of his game to shut down this offense.