Seven years ago, Earl Thomas was a high school running back playing football in the small town of West Orange, Texas. On Sunday, he might be the most-important player on the field, playing on the biggest stage in the world.
Perhaps that's a bit hyperbolic, especially with Peyton Manning and Russell Wilson also playing in Super Bowl 48, but it isn't far off. While the Denver offense goes as far as Manning will take it, the Seattle defense is similarly reliant on Thomas. There isn't another player on Seattle's roster who can play the role Thomas does at as high a level as he plays it. That isn't to take away from his teammates on defense. The Seahawks are especially talented with Richard Sherman, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, Michael Bennett and Brandon Mebane among a host of players playing at a very high level.
Thomas isn't a one-man show, but he is the gas that makes the Ferrari go.
The Seahawks don't play an exotic brand of defense. They play mostly Cover-3, focusing on doing what they do at a very high level instead of trying to confuse the offense. The defense requires several components, but none may be more important than the role of the free safety. To be effective, Seattle needs a special talent at that position. A player capable of shutting down the middle of the field while also aiding the corners to prevent any big plays. Danny Kelly of Field Gulls described the role in more detail:
Pete Carroll is a defensive backs guru. He's coached some of the best pass defenses in NFL history in Seattle and Minnesota. For Carroll, the capstone of his defense is the deep safety, and it's a position he holds in the highest esteem. "The deep safety is a player that is close to my heart. That is what I played," he said during a coaching clinic back during his days at USC, and once he made the jump back to the pros, his second Draft pick was a rangy, instinctive safety out of Texas. He now lives his unrealized dream to play in the NFL through his avatar, Earl Thomas.
Carroll described the role of his free safety while still back at USC, and while there are surely myriad nuances, when you boil it down, this is what the Seahawks ask Earl Thomas to do to this day:
"The deep safety has to play two routes. He has to defend the seam route and the post route. That is all I ask him to play. He has to find the seam route from the number two receiver. If there are two of them then he has to get in the middle and play them both. On the post route he has to stay on top of that route."
Thomas must play from the numbers to the numbers (redline to redline), and take away any routes going to the middle of the field. If there are two, he splits the difference until the ball is thrown. His number one priority is to never get beat over the top. Ever. Carroll expounds:
"Teach your [safeties] to play the deep middle and forget about all the confusing rules. The guy who is playing in the middle of the field has to figure out who can get into the middle. We want our safety to play in the middle of the two receivers that can run the post route. He wants to split the relationship with anyone who can get down the middle."
Thomas does exactly that. His rare combination of explosive athleticism, range and natural instincts allow him to cover more ground than what should be humanly possible. More from Kelly:
Despite very consistently being the only player down the deep middle of the field:
In 2012, teams only attempted 15 passes to the deep middle -- best in the NFL.
In 2013, teams only attempted 8 passes to the deep middle -- best in the NFL.
That's 8 attempts to Area 29 (the nickname given to the deep middle of the field) out of 524 total passes attempted against the Seahawks in 2013. Thomas' ability to almost completely take away that part of the field is crucial to Pete Carroll's number one stated goal as a defense: Eliminate the explosive play. The results speak for themselves, as the Hawks as a team led the NFL least amount of passes of 20 or more yards surrendered (30) and passes of 40 or more yards surrendered (3).
It's safe to say he's come a long way from the 170-pound running back you can see in these grainy YouTube highlights. Thomas wasn't a diamond in the rough coming out of high school, but he wasn't as heralded as some prospects, partly because of his size. Despite his stature, the traits that make him so good today were evident then, as SB Nation's Wescott Eberts noted:
Thomas was seen as an undersized but talented prospect from West-Orange Stark High School in Texas, a school that produces a significant number of prospects. Rated as a mid four-star prospect by Rivals, Thomas was listed as an athlete because of his ability as a running back in high school, though it was clear that his playmaking ability in the secondary with nine interceptions in his last two seasons would lead him to the defensive side of the ball in college.
After racking up nearly 4,000 yards in high school, Thomas did in fact make the transition to defense. He sat out his first season in Austin. After a redshirt season, Thomas worked his way into the starting lineup. Playing a mix of corner and safety, he began to make a name for himself, earning Freshman All-America honors. His sophomore season is when things really began to take off. Playing safety full time, Thomas racked up 77 tackles, 16 pass break ups and eight interceptions. He was a consensus first-team All-America selection.
Using a acquired in a trade with the Denver Broncos, the Seahawks selected Thomas with the No. 14 pick in the 2010 NFL Draft. A quick glance at his career numbers and it appears Thomas came into the NFL as a force. He finished his rookie season with 76 tackles, seven pass break ups and five interceptions. His playmaking ability was apparent from Day 1, but he was far from the player he is now. In fact, he was nearly benched during his rookie season.
"He won't want to admit to this, but there was a time where I said, ‘You know what Earl, I'm going to have to sit you down, because it's getting to the point where we don't know what you're going to do next,' " Carroll said recently. "Earl at the time thought that he needed to make plays, and I convinced him that we needed him to play the defense that we're calling."
Seattle's defensive scheme demands a lot athletically from its players, but it also requires trust. Each player has a designed role, a place to be and a responsibility on every play. If they freelance and don't fulfill their obligation, the entire defense breaks down. This is especially crucial in the secondary where the corners will pass off routes to the safeties, expecting them to be in a spot. Kelly detailed the process and the trust level of the current Seattle secondary. The Sehawks may have that trust in each other now, but it wasn't always that way. Early in his career, Thomas played like a football-seeking missile. Wherever the ball went, Thomas followed and fast. He flew around and made plays, the only problem is they weren't always his plays to make.
Flash forward to this season and Thomas still flies around the field like a football-seeking missile, he just does it within his role in the defense. When Drew Brees tried to hit Jimmy Graham over the middle in the Divisional Round, Thomas came flying in to break up the pass. The Seattle defense relies on Thomas to handle a lot of responsibility and there is a reason the Seahawks finished first in total and scoring defense. Thomas set a career high with 105 tackles this season, an increase of nearly 40 tackles from last year. He also tied career-highs with nine pass break ups and five interceptions.
Sherman isn't shy in calling himself the best corner in the NFL, but that doesn't mean he thinks he's the best defensive player on the team. When asked who should win NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Sherman didn't pick himself.
"I would have to give it to Earl," Sherman said. "I think Earl is having a fantastic year. He's flying around, tackling everywhere, forcing fumbles, getting interceptions. I don't think there's anybody out there playing better defense and I think our defense is No. 1 in the league."
Thomas is no longer the outstanding athlete trying to settle into a position. He's no longer a liability to the integrity of the defense like he was as a rookie. Now, he's the best defensive player on the best defense in the NFL. He's come a long way in a short amount of time and at 24, he's still in the infancy of his evolution as a football player. The next step in the process could come on Sunday in the Super Bowl.