RENTON, Wash. — Questions like this make Earl Thomas uncomfortable.
The confidence he shows on the field takes a backseat when Seattle’s star free safety is asked if he is the reason the Seahawks work defensively — even more so than their brash cornerbacks, more so than their talented linebackers or pass rushers. It’s natural when he tries to deflect praise as much as possible.
“I don’t want to say it’s all about me as far as I don’t ever want to come across like that, especially to my teammates,” Thomas said. “I think it’s a collective effort but I play a big role just me being back there.”
On a team where Marshawn Lynch is the beast, Russell Wilson is a media darling and Richard Sherman seemingly can’t stop receiving attention, the most important player in the Seahawks starting lineup could arguably be their free safety.
Last season the Seahawks were the best scoring defense in the NFL. When their offense sputtered early in the season, it was Thomas and his defensive mates that held Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay to just 12 points, shut down Tom Brady and New England in the second half and made life miserable for Dallas and Tony Romo.
And the Seahawks are able to play the way they do defensively because Thomas is such a unique mix of speed and skill roaming the back end, waiting to clean up any messes.
But in trying to explain how Thomas makes Seattle’s defense work, there is another story about how he’s taken those raw skills that made him the 14th overall pick in the 2010 draft and through a mix of maturity, study and determination has created an All-Pro who is still only 24 years old.
He was just the second Seattle safety to ever be named first-team All-Pro, joining Kenny Easley.
“When he first got here he was so enthusiastic about the opportunity to get out there and kind of create certain things and create certain situations, and the more that he has played the more he has begun to understand it’s not about creating opportunities, it’s about capitalizing on opportunities,” Seahawks defensive backs coach Kris Richard said. “And you capitalize on opportunities by being where you are supposed to be, by film study and by calculation and by taking your calculated risks. That’s pretty much where it’s been. It’s time spent in the film room and ultimately his maturation as a leader overall and he’s taken off.”
Before Thomas became the star student, the raw skills needed to be there. And much of what Seattle does defensively is predicated on what Thomas can do from the back.
Thomas is undersized for a free safety but his speed and ability to make plays on the ball in the air make up for that lack of stature. Just how fast is Thomas? The Seahawks have red lines running the length of their practice fields, inset just a few yards from the sidelines. The space between the red lines is the area a safety is expected to cover.
“They say from red line to red line here, but he can get sideline to sideline,” cornerback Brandon Browner said. “He can open up the wrong way and get back to the other side before the ball gets there. That’s the kind of speed he has.”
Because Thomas has that kind of speed and the ability to cover ground, it allows Browner and Sherman to play the physical, press defense that fits their styles, knowing that their help will be able to get there.
“It just allows them to be normal. It’s as simple as that,” Richard said. “Having a free safety of this caliber allows the corners to be normal.”
Thomas is considered the quarterback of the defense so it’s no surprise he’ll sit and watch film with Wilson. He studies alignments and splits, looking for any signal of what might be coming.
It was a trait Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn noticed during Thomas’ rookie season.
“There were times he’d come up and want extra meeting time and information with the guys,” Quinn said. “He didn’t want to be a rookie that just ‘I’ll figure it out.’ He was more and more and more. The other thing that jumped out at me was his practice habits.”
Thomas said the professional game has slowed down through a combination of doing his homework and more playing experience. It was obvious on the field a year ago and it was why he was the top vote getter among all safeties in the All-Pro voting.
“Every level you go to, it’s a sense of game speed as far as everything is moving a little bit faster so sometimes your mind is not ready for it. And you just act on God-given ability,” Thomas said. “But when the game slows down, you can see everything and you see the big picture and not get distracted by the big picture and still key in to what you’ve got to do. That’s when you make a lot of plays and when you become great.”