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Earl Thomas’ absence could be the difference in Seahawks vs. Falcons rematch

The “next guy up” mentality is more difficult to apply when a team is missing a player like Thomas.

NFL: Buffalo Bills at Seattle Seahawks Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

When the Seattle Seahawks and Atlanta Falcons first met in Week 6 of the regular season, safety Earl Thomas intercepted a Matt Ryan pass intended for Julio Jones in the fourth quarter. The pick ended up being the biggest play of the game, because it set up a Seahawks drive that ended with what would be the game-winning field goal in Seattle’s 26-24 victory.

When these teams face off this weekend in Divisional round play, the Seahawks will be without Thomas. As the former defensive coordinator of the Seahawks, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn has a unique understanding of the defense his team is about to face. Quinn also understands the impact Thomas’ season-ending injury has on Seattle’s defensive unit.

Thomas, who suffered a broken leg against the Carolina Panthers in Week 13, has been replaced in the lineup by backup Steven Terrell.

Quinn said that for the Seahawks, nothing changes from a scheme perspective. Still, Thomas’ absence is felt because of his versatility.

“It’s pretty rare that you can play middle field safety, you go down and cover a slot receiver, play on a back who’s really fast,” Quinn said. “So when you have a player that’s really versatile that can handle a lot of different jobs based on what the offense has, for sure that goes into your game plan.”

In a lot of ways, Atlanta’s defensive scheme mirrors what Seattle runs. Quinn understands that Thomas’ impact on the field goes well beyond his actual play.

As the quarterback of the defense, essentially, Thomas is calling protections and making adjustments. That ability to communicate is another area in which the Seahawks certainly miss Thomas’ presence.

“When you line up in the middle of the field and play three deep, much like we do, you have real vision,” Quinn said. “So you can see things from the outside and inside. So having that ability to communicate down to the linebackers and down to the defensive line on any defense is critical.”

Seattle can’t truly replace Thomas’ impact on the field

Terrell was an undrafted free agent and Seahawks special teamer who had three career tackles when Thomas suffered his first injury of the season in Week 11 against the Philadelphia Eagles. Filling in for Thomas, Terrell finished that game with four tackles.

Pete Carroll told the Atlanta media that he’s pleased with the way Terrell has filled in for Thomas. Terrell can’t replicate what Thomas does for the Seahawks defense, though.

“So Steve Terrell steps up, and he’s got a new job, and he’s done really well for us,” Carroll said. “He’s played a lot. Like, Earl was hurt, then he kind of came back, and then he got hurt again. So Steve has played about seven games for us. He’s been in six games or something like that and done a good job.

“He can’t be Earl, and he’s just got to do the best he can how he does it. And Earl’s a very unique player, and a guy that we always miss, but Steven’s done a great job stepping up for him.”

When key players go down with injuries, you’ll often hear coaches and players talk about the “next man up.” Injuries are an unavoidable part of the game, and guys down the depth chart have to be prepared to step in when they’re needed.

Quinn, however, noted that “next guy up” mentality is a little more difficult to apply when you’re talking about replacing a player of Thomas’ caliber.

“Every team deals with them, injuries, but I know sometimes ‘next man up’ — I always feel funky on that term, because the guy who was there, it’s like, man, that guy totally battles for us,” Quinn said. “So it’s next man up, but also, we’re counting on this guy to fill in and do a fantastic job.”

Quinn thinks Terrell is filling in admirably in Thomas’ absence, but nobody can replace what Thomas brings to Seattle’s defense.

“He’s well-equipped to play, and you don’t necessarily say ‘there’s no drop off.’ OK, well, Earl Thomas is pretty good, so let’s not be surprised by that,” Quinn said. “But I would say Steven is a really good player, someone who’s really principled and knows how to play.”

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The Seahawks will face a true challenge against the Falcons’ dynamic offense. Seattle is 4-2 since Thomas’ season ended, and the Seahawks didn’t allow the Detroit Lions to score a single touchdown in Wild Card play. The defense seems to be holding up fine with Terrell filling in for Thomas.

Still, Thomas’ play made all the difference in Seattle’s Week 6 win over the Falcons, and his absence may make all the difference this week in the Divisional round.