Safety Earl Thomas is driven to be the best at his position. Mission accomplished. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
The NFL has changed a lot in the last 10 years, and the safety position is one that has perhaps changed most with it. In days of yore, safeties were enforcers, the guys you didn't want to mess with under any circumstances -- the guys who would meet you across the middle with murderous intent. From Jack Tatum to Steve Atwater, safeties used to be known primarily for their ability to hit in space -- to be the downhill free-rangers.
Coverage was also an important concern (especially deep coverage against vertical offenses), but the requirements of the position are far more expansive now. Some NFL teams don't really differentiate between free and strong safeties now -- they want interchangeable guys who can do everything from back-half coverage to force defender roles against the run. For those teams that clearly differentiate between free and strong, the free safety is tasked to cover more ground than ever before.
The exponential growth of multi-receiver sets and fast option quarterbacks leaves these players in great demand if they have the athleticism, instincts and football intelligence to play many parts at a high level. When the New Orleans Saints selected Texas safety Kenny Vacarro in the first round of the 2013 draft, defensive coordinator Rob Ryan immediately put him all over the field, and Vacarro was impressive in his ability to pick it up. Having that one player able to keep the logical extensions of an offense under control allows other defenders to play their parts without over-extending.
Of course, safeties are the guys you rarely see unless they're coming up to make kill-shots. Before All-22 angles became available to the general public, fans had to guess what safeties were doing a lot of the time because broadcasts wouldn't fan out to show them 20 yards off the line of scrimmage (it's far more important to get two seconds of the quarterback's eyes pre-snap than to show the formations, right?). But people in and around the league have picked up on the trend.
The AP Defensive Player of the Year award was established in 1971, and in the first 23 years, only two safeties nabbed the honor -- Dick Anderson of the Miami Dolphins in 1973 and Kenny Easley of the Seattle Seahawks in 1984 (Surprised that Ronnie Lott never won it? Me, too). But in the last 10 years, three safeties have won it -- Ed Reed of the Baltimore Ravens in 2004, Bob Sanders of the Indianapolis Colts in 2007 and Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2010.
BURKE: Tyrann Mathieu deserves consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year
Each of those three players could lay the wood with the best of them, but what these new safeties have to possess is an uncanny knack for closing on huge areas of the field with scary speed, and making impact plays that other players simply couldn't. At their peaks, those players combined cornerback speed with safety abandon in entirely new ways.
In the 2010 draft, the Kansas City Chiefs and Seattle Seahawks were looking for new defenders to help define their teams. The Chiefs took Tennessee safety Eric Berry with the fifth overall pick, and the Seahawks took Texas safety Earl Thomas with the 14th pick. At that time, I viewed Berry as by far the more complete player of the two -- he was not as fast or rangy as Thomas (who some teams projected as an NFL cornerback), but he had a certainty when he tackled that Thomas did not. Thomas seemed to me to be more the Jairus Byrd type -- the elite center fielder but not the first guy you'd want to be in on a run fit.
Fast-forward a few seasons later, and Berry has lived up to his promise when healthy. It's Thomas, however, whom I find more interesting. His development as a tackler over his NFL career -- particularly in the last two seasons -- is something that has gone relatively unnoticed, but it's real, and it screams off the tape. Now Thomas isn't just a great cover safety from anywhere to anywhere on the field, he's also turned himself into a Scud missile, able to take ridiculous angles and read plays with microscopic precision.
BURKE & FARRAR: Taking stock of all the division leaders
This was never more evident that in Seattle's 14-9 win over the St. Louis Rams on Monday night. The game itself was an ugly win for the Seahawks, but Thomas had what I would consider to be a signature performance. On a national stage, he proved himself to be every bit the equal of Reed, Polamalu, and Sanders. And because the overhead view is now readily available, we can see it in ways we would not have 10 years ago.
When I posited to head coach Pete Carroll that Thomas' night against the Rams was a watershed moment, he stopped short of that -- perhaps because he's seen Thomas' development in ways most people haven't, and it was less of a surprise to him.
“He played a really complete football game," Carroll told me. "He had a lot of opportunities to make physical plays, real explosive plays that he kind of specializes in with his quickness and his mentality of going after stuff. It was just a complete football game, is what he played. He might have had six or seven highlight plays in the game of just firing up and making big-time tackles and it was really cool to see him do that. He was a big part of the goal-line situation too down there. He did a great job.”
BURKE & FARRAR: The Playbook: Previewing Packers-Bears, Seahawks-Buccaneers, more Week 9 games
The goal-line situation Carroll referred to was the Rams' four-play gambit at the end of the game. St. Louis had first-and-goal from the Seattle six-yard line with 46 seconds left in the game, and Thomas made two huge plays to secure the Seahawks' successful goal-line stand. Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens threw an uncompleted pass to Austin Pettis on the right side of the end zone on first down, and the Rams came back with halfback Daryl Richardson on a draw out of the Pistol formation that would have been a touchdown had Thomas not come up from deep in the end zone (about two yards from the goalpost) to make the stop at the two-yard line. Seahawks end Chris Clemons was flagged for defensive offside on the next play, which gave the Rams third-and-goal at the Seattle 1. St. Louis had been gashing Seattle's defense all night with its rushing attack, but Richardson wouldn't do it on this play, and it had everything to to with Thomas.
As you can see pre-snap, Thomas is so far outside in coverage, he's not even in the EndZone cam shot. You have to go to the overhead to even make him out, and with the Rams one yard away from scoring, you'd assume there's no way Thomas makes the deciding tackle. But he took the right angle, closed in and got Richardson just behind the line of scrimmage. Kudos to reserve linebacker Heath Farwell for making the initial hit, but it was Thomas who made the stop.
Always possessing great range, Earl Thomas has improved his tackling and recognition. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
Thomas had been making an impact all through the game, though -- and sometimes, it the mere threat of a tackle that did the job. With 5:22 left in the first quarter, the Rams had a third-and-15 at the Seattle 24, and they ran a three-wide set with the X and Z receivers outside the numbers -- they really wanted to stretch Seattle's defense out. The Seahawks responded with nickel coverage, with Thomas and Kam Chancellor as the deep safeties. Clemens hit receiver Chris Givens on a quick in route from the far left side, and Thomas somehow bailed in all the way from the other deep side of the field to limit the play to a nine-yard gain. He torpedoed over Givens, who managed to slip and fall to the ground at just the right time to avoid the hit. Had Givens been able to continue inside, he probably would have made the first down -- and maybe more.
Earl Thomas closes in on Chris Givens from an impossible angle...
...and Givens appears to make what Deion Sanders has often called a "business decision."
Thomas' pure range, read abilities and closing burst were perhaps best displayed with 6:31 left in the third quarter. This time, the Rams had second-and-9 at the Seattle 24. Clemens could find nothing open against Seattle's nickel man coverage and started to scramble. Thomas was the sole deep defender because Chancellor came up pre-snap in a blitz look. When Clemens started running, Thomas was at the Seattle four-yard line between the hashes, and he somehow made it to the left sideline to buzz Clemens and stop him for a six-yard gain. It was another situation in which a Rams skill position player would have had at least a first down were it not for Thomas violating all sorts of speed limits.
Kellen Clemens had a free lane here ... until Thomas closed it off.
"Aw, man -- that was unbelievable," cornerback Richard Sherman later said of that play. "But it’s Earl. He’s the kind of player that makes unbelievable plays look routine on the daily. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh my God. He came out of nowhere.’ But we were like, ‘Well. He does that all the time.’ And he’ll say it in practice. He’ll say, ‘If that was a game, I would’ve got you.’ He’ll say it to [quarterback] Russell [Wilson], and then Russell will laugh. But he’s totally serious and he came out of the middle of the field. He came out of the deep third. His reaction and his speed gives him the ability to be anywhere, at any time.”
“The speed has always been there," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said Thursday when asked how Thomas has grown as a player. "You felt how fast he practiced. The experience of seeing the routes and now being able to play the technique, where before he might have just reacted when the play happened to now, he understands. You’ll hear him talking on the field in terms of a split or an alignment or a formation, that’s the biggest thing I see. Because the intensity, the desire, the will has always been there with him. You saw that at Texas, and then it carried into his first year, how hard he practiced and played. Now, the added factor of experience and the recognition ... that’s the biggest difference.”
And that's the larger point. You can't make these kinds of plays on a consistent basis without an elevated sense of the field. Outside linebacker Bruce Irvin told me this week that Thomas was the one who alerted him to the route that resulted in his interception in the Rams game, and Irvin also said that Thomas helped cornerback Brandon Browner with placement on at least one impact play. Sherman, Browner's bookend in the Seahawks' "Legion of Boom" secondary, was especially effusive about Thomas' development.
"He’s one of the most locked-in football players I have ever seen and you can see his dedication and his focus to the game every single day. He’s having a career year, and it’s because it’s something that he’s focused on. He’s focused on making open field tackles, catching the picks. You know he was disappointed in certain facets of his game last year, and he works harder than anyone to fix them and he’s doing that ... The way he tackles, the way he attacks, tackling in the open field. Shoot, he’s saved maybe three or four touchdowns just the last game. Coming up, making tackles when we needed him to. He’s also focused on the interceptions. He felt like he dropped a couple last year. Now, he’s freaking catching everything that comes his way, and I think that’s helping our ball club.”
Thomas isn't generally one to talk about himself, though he said this week that he believes he's a legitimate contender for that Defensive Player of the Year award this season. It's tough to argue against his candidacy.
PERLOFF: Texans turn to Case Keenum, who's no stranger to long odds