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29 Dec 2016

Film Room: Earl Thomas

by Cian Fahey

Earl Thomas is best described in the voice of a Lord of the Rings character who is warning his friends about one of the lurking evils that threatens their path. Thomas exists and thrives in anonymity. His presence is regularly discussed, and though rarely ever seen, it is always felt. Those who have encountered him or aligned alongside him are quick to laud what he brings to the field.

Most of the work Thomas does goes unseen because he lines up off the screen on regular broadcasts. When he executes his job as designed, the ball is unlikely to be thrown in his direction. Therefore, unlike a pass rusher or literally any offensive skill position player, Thomas' best plays don't become highlights. His best plays prevent the offense from getting their own highlights.

Thomas has reached rare air. He has become a consensus star at a time when every player is pushed into debate for the sake of debate. Thomas' anonymity plays a big role in his consensus status. It also helps that Richard Sherman's critics use Thomas as an excuse to tear down Sherman due to the cornerback's overt confidence and outspoken nature.

Unsurprisingly, Thomas himself is aware of his reserved nature. "I don't really have good social skills," Thomas told ESPN's Sheil Kapadia. "I'm just a football player...when I'm out there, that's when I can really socialize."

Engaging with Thomas on the field rarely results in anything good for his opponents.

From Weeks 1 to 11 this season, the Seahawks surrendered completions on just two of 12 attempts that travelled 16 or more yards deep over the middle of the field, for a total of 53 yards. Since Week 12, those numbers rose to 5-of-10 for 206 yards. Thomas missed the Week 12 game and was then lost for the season early in the second quarter in Week 13 against the Carolina Panthers. Thomas hurt himself when breaking on a pass over the middle of the field, and was unlucky not to intercept Cam Newton.

Immediately after Thomas went out, Newton completed a 55-yard touchdown pass directly down the middle of the field on third-and-17. It was the type of throw that Newton would never have attempted with Thomas on the field. And with Thomas sidelined, the Seahawks played a more passive coverage than they likely would have otherwise.

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Even on second-and-17, the Seahawks played aggressive coverage. They only rushed four but stayed in base personnel to play their standard Cover-3. Kam Chancellor lined up over Greg Olsen, the Panthers' best receiving option. Chancellor overplayed the outside from the very beginning, sitting back to keep his eyes on Newton in the pocket. Newton began the play looking to his left, attempting to hold Thomas on that side of the field. Against most safeties, Netwon's eye discipline here would have been enough to create a throwing lane. But even with his eye discipline and an arm strength that can rival any other quarterback's, Newton couldn't beat Thomas with the ball. Thomas' range and intelligence allowed him to undercut the pass. Had Chancellor not also played the situation perfectly, Thomas would have had an interception.

Instead, he was lost for the year and the Seahawks immediately faced third down.

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On that third down the Seahawks dropped all of their coverage deeper than normal. They even dropped a defensive tackle into underneath coverage so only three defenders were pursuing Newton in the pocket. The Seahawks dropped Bobby Wagner into the deep middle, splitting the two deep safeties to create a tighter Cover-3 look. Newton again looked to manipulate a safety with his eyes. This time it worked, as he pushed the right-sided safety towards the sideline, isolating Ted Ginn running down the seam with Wagner. With a perfect deep throw, Newton's pass beat the recovering safety and allowed Ginn an opportunity to roll into the end zone.

Those couple of yards of range were the difference between Thomas breaking the ball up and his replacement giving up a touchdown.

Pete Carroll anchors his coverages off of Thomas the way an NBA team would off of a shot-blocking 7-foot center. Thomas is not only expected to dominate in his assignments, he is expected to dominate while executing the toughest assignments on the field. With Sherman shutting down the receiver to one side and Thomas covering more ground than anyone else on the field, the assignments for every other player on the defense become easier. The field is tightened and defenders can afford to be more aggressive because they know Thomas will clean up for them if they are beaten. "That's a big emphasis. That's what we ask him to take care of – seams and posts," assistant coach Rocky Seto told Kapadia about the importance of Thomas' range. "And any underneath routes or runs that get out, to make those tackles. He's a critical player to eliminating explosive plays. If a slant route or a little dive play gets out, he has to get the guy down."

Kapadia notes how the scheme requires Thomas to be the safety blanket instead of being aggressive. Thomas himself believes it handicaps him, but also understands why. Seto again praised Thomas for his ability and willingness to excel in that role: "Range is important... The ability to stay disciplined in your work and being content. 'I covered. I didn't give up a seam. I didn't give up a post. I made all my tackles.' Knowing that that's a great game. It takes a lot of discipline to stay in that mode."

That role has hindered Thomas' production, but his talent is such that he has still managed 23 interceptions over his seven-year career. He has three five-interception seasons.

Measuring Thomas' absence isn't an individual thing. Thomas' absence is felt on a macro scale rather than a micro scale. Over the first 11 weeks of the season, when Thomas was healthy, the Seahawks had a pass defense DVOA of -6.8%. That ranked fifth over that time. Since Thomas was first injured, the Seahawks pass defense has a DVOA of 25.8%, 26th in the league over that time. That drop in pass defense resulted in a dropoff from third to 17th for the unit as a whole. Thomas is the foundation of the Seahawks pass defense. When he isn't available, the structural integrity of the unit is compromised.

You need to be a plus athlete to play safety in the NFL, but an NFL field is too big and NFL receivers are too talented for you to function solely relying on athleticism. Thomas' acceleration and overall speed is unmatched across the league, but it's his understanding of opposing offenses that accentuates his range. When I asked Domonique Foxworth, current writer for ESPN's The Undefeated and former Baltimore Ravens cornerback, about the nuances of the safety position, he explained how detail-oriented the position really is. "I know enough about Seattle's defense to know that they pretty much run exclusively Cover-3, so the offense knows what you're going to be in and they know how to attack it," Foxworth said. "Being able to study what teams and players do well against Cover-3 [is crucial]. Oftentimes teams will get tripped up by offenses that motion or shift to a formation. Some safeties could potentially say they don't know what's coming, but Earl could recognize that. Smart quarterbacks will pick your coverage apart -- there is no perfect coverage so they know where the weaknesses are. What [Ed Reed] did that was special was he would know when they knew what we were doing and then he would do what people would call going rogue or doing his own thing, but they were very definite actions. He got a pick against Cover-2 once on a slant, which is absurd for a deep safety. But the slant is open in Cover-2 and Ed jumped it."

Ed Reed had more freedom to be aggressive than Thomas does now, but the principles of their success are shared.

Pete Carroll's defense is both rigid and fluid. It's rigid because it primarily runs Cover-3, but it's fluid because that Cover-3 is designed to adjust to what the offense does on every single snap. It's a principle called pattern matching. Carroll describes pattern matching in his own words as "a principle of understanding what the routes are and the combinations that happen and working with guys to their drops accordingly. We play off of the cues that you get from the offense. So you're matching up your drops based on what we're doing." This controlled freedom that Carroll gives his players stresses their studying habits and acumen, but it allows them to play so much Cover-3 without letting the offense pick them apart easily.

It's a more complex system than Carroll lets on, but its principles are simple. The coverage is always called the same, but the players are supposed to work in unison to adjust to what the offense does. In other words, the play is never actually the same. Thomas himself perfectly described the way the defense is designed to work: "If you look at the big picture of how we move together, that's the biggest thing that stands out to me. We have to move as one. It's one big body out there. It's not just you're playing corner, I'm playing safety. We're actually tied on a string. And whatever concept we're getting, we're able to adapt through communication."

Conveying Thomas' value within that one big body became much easier when a mere mortal was asked to play his role. Steven Terrell was tasked with replacing Thomas. Terrell might be a good player, he might be a bad player, but it's tough to know right now because he's being asked to be a unique player.

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Take this relatively simple play against the Green Bay Packers. All of the Packers receivers are covered comfortably in their initial routes. Aaron Rodgers recognizes this and moves to break the pocket. As soon as he breaks the pocket and his shoulders face the sideline, Terrell should recognize that he is closing the field down. Whether he was simply slow to react or if he was drawn to Sherman's receiver working the middle of the field, Terrell misjudged this situation. Rodgers breaking into the flat should have led Terrell to follow him. He should have opened his hips and run towards the far sideline while keeping his eyes on the quarterback. Had he gained depth, he would have been in position to thwart Rodgers' eventual pass to Davante Adams.

Although he likely never had a chance of actually covering Adams, Thomas would have put himself in position where he would make Rodgers more reluctant to attempt the throw. He would at the very least have put himself in position to catch Adams before he reached the end zone.

This is the simplest example of a defender reacting to the offense and adjusting based on the situation without freelancing or "going rogue." Thomas wouldn't have worried about Sherman's receiver. He would have encouraged Rodgers to throw back across his body, potentially into traffic, and against Sherman. If you watch Thomas often enough you will realize that he trusts Sherman more than he does any other defensive back, and for good reason. Sherman and Thomas help each other because they know that they can trust each other.

For J.J. Nelson's second-quarter touchdown against the Seahawks in Week 16, Terrell pulled himself out of position by overreacting to the quarterback's eyes as he focused on a receiver that Sherman had comfortably covered.

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Every safety will be caught out of position at some point. Most safeties are caught out of position regularly. There's a difference between being caught out of position for a good reason and being caught out of position for a bad reason. It's extremely rare that Thomas will be caught out of position; it's even more rare that he will push himself out of position.

On Nelson's touchdown reception, Terrell beats himself. He pushes himself out of position by not understanding the alignment of Sherman and the route combinations developing in front of him. Sherman is lined up off the line of scrimmage, across from the inside slot receiver. He is shaded inside from the beginning of the play and breaks infield before the receiver does. Sherman is on top of the route from the moment the receiver turns inside.

Terrell lingers over the middle of the field as Carson Palmer looks in that direction. He settles for a moment before turning to his right and drifting backwards. Terrell is now moving towards a spot on the field where he can't cover anyone. Even Sherman's receiver has cut sharp enough that he won't threaten the spot on the field where Terrell is moving to.

While he does that, Nelson has released inside of the cornerback on the other side of the field. That cornerback appeared to be expecting help from Terrell, but Terrell turning to his right meant that he had to take the long way around to try and recover when Palmer stepped up in the pocket and looked to that side of the field.

Had Terrell held his position and made a sharper adjustment instead of drifting to the wrong side of the field, he might have had a chance at making a play on this ball. Had Thomas been on the field, the ball would never have been thrown.

Safeties will inevitably be found out of position, but those who are led out of position by the quarterback instead of leading themselves out through a lack of discipline are more likely to be consistent on a snap-to-snap basis. Another inevitable failure of being a safety is missing tackles. By far the biggest criticism of Thomas over the course of his career has been his missed tackles. Safeties play in vast amounts of space and encounter every kind of opponent -- they will miss tackles. Thomas isn't really a bad tackler or a bad locater of the football, he just plays in more space than everyone else. One of the lost elements of Thomas' defense against ballcarriers is how quickly he closes on the ball. He often reaches points on the field where most safeties aren't factors in the play.

One thing you can always be assured of is Thomas' ability to diagnose and attack the play in front of him. For Nelson's second big play of last week's game, Terrell's inability to aggressively locate in space cost him.

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Terrell never shows off the intensity that has become a trademark for Thomas. Thomas has little regard for his body when he's on the field. He torpedoes to the football and will always look to meet the ballcarrier at the earliest possible point in this scenario. This leads to missed tackles, but his aggressive approach normally forces the ballcarrier to slow down to make him miss, which buys time for his pursuing teammates. Terrell not only misses the tackle, but he uses a tentative approach that affords Nelson the comfort to move at his own pace. Compare how Terrell reacts on the above play to how Thomas reacts below.

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No matter how much space he is in, no matter what kind of receiver it is, Thomas is always coming fast and hard when the ball is in front of him. He is smart in how he pursues the ball, but mostly he's aggressive. He plants his foot and attacks downfield as the ball is being released on this play. Compare that to Terrell, who was slow to react and moved slowly downfield before almost coming to a full stop. Kelvin Benjamin is one of the heaviest receivers in the league, while J.J. Nelson is one of the lightest, yet Terrell was the cautious one while Thomas employed reckless abandon.

There are players in the league who are great but whose absences wouldn't force a complete overhaul of their team's identities. Like Cam Newton in Carolina, Earl Thomas is not one of them. Thomas is a unique player who is at the heart of everything the Seahawks have done over the past four seasons -- four seasons when they have been arguably the most dominant defense in history.

Posted by: Cian Fahey on 29 Dec 2016

6 comments, Last at 30 Dec 2016, 5:59pm by gomer_rs

Comments

1
by gomer_rs :: Thu, 12/29/2016 - 4:56pm

Just thinking you should have used the image of Thomas leveling Gronk. If you wanted the greatest possible disparity.

The Seahawks must use more blitzs now to force QBs into faster decisions. Losing Thomas changes the whole defensive philosophy.
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I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

2
by galactic_dev :: Thu, 12/29/2016 - 5:03pm

Great article. Thanks!

3
by dbostedo :: Thu, 12/29/2016 - 10:20pm

Love the annotations in the videos. Great article!

4
by bubqr :: Fri, 12/30/2016 - 10:10am

Very good article Cian!
One thing about the Seahawks Cover 3 I never understood - I know that having 3 Pro-bowlers help, but how come the predictability of their coverage scheme don't hurt them more? How are they not manipulated by offensive coaches that could in theory predict the coverage that easily?

6
by gomer_rs :: Fri, 12/30/2016 - 5:59pm

Never watched the tape, but I'll take a shot at your answer. I believe that the Seahawks play aggressive in the short zones and coverage, using Thomas's supernatural speed to clean up any routes that attack vertically quickly. However, there are a number of slow developing 3 beaters, like Denver used in Seattle in 2014, and Seattle just makes the gamble that rush will get home before you're WRs can make double moves 15-20 yards down field.

Even before they got Bennett and Avril they always played a wide-9 rush end on the weak-side of the formation (Avril and Chirs Clemmons before him). And before Bennett became an every down player, they matched that up with a two gap DE on the strong side. (Red Bryant) However, when their pass rush didn't get home or teams were forced to take the risk, like the 2012 divisional playoff against Atlanta, the deep wholes would fairly routinely get exposed. I believe this to be the reason that Seattle has blown so many leads despite their great D.
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I remember when they were the Sea-chickens.

5
by jshusted916 :: Fri, 12/30/2016 - 12:58pm

Cian, articles like this are why you're quickly becoming my favorite NFL writer. Is this the standard level of sports writing in the UK? If so, where do I request citizenship.