When you watch the Seahawks defense during the playoffs, keep your eye on the edge of the screen. Just beyond it, free safety Earl Thomas is messing up the other team before they even snap the ball.
Positioned 12 yards south of the line of scrimmage—so far away that he often doesn’t appear on your TV screen—Thomas is tasked with preventing long pass plays. But he’s so much more. Thomas is like gravity, an unseen force influencing every move opposing offenses make.
Here’s how Thomas stuffs a run without touching a soul. Because he’s fast and savvy enough to patrol the outer reaches of the Seahawks defense all by himself, the other Hawks can edge up to the line of scrimmage. The opposing offense can try to run, but since the quarterback doesn’t block anyone, and someone has to carry the ball, they only have nine guys to block ten Seahawks. If every Seahawk does his job, Thomas’ ability guarantees a stuffed run—though Thomas himself never gets within 15 yards of the play.
When opponents pass, Thomas is a leading cause of quarterback indecision. On the TV, you see the quarterback looking . . . looking . . . looking. What he sees is Thomas, lurking in the middle of the field, primed to use his world-class speed to race toward any deep pass. Fearful of throwing an interception, the quarterback holds onto the ball too long, and a lineman like Michael Bennett sacks him. Then you see Bennett shaking his moneymaker in celebration—but Bennett’s name isn’t on the dance card if Thomas doesn’t cause the quarterback to throw a few beats late.
Sometimes quarterbacks do test Thomas with deep passes. It hasn’t gone so well. This year, the Seahawks allowed only 4 passes of more than 35 yards. Meanwhile, Seahawks defenders returned 4 interceptions for more than 35 yards. I’ll admit I’m being intentionally arbitrary here, but—whoa! Opposing quarterbacks tossed as many long passes to the Seahawks as they did to guys on their own team.
If you really want to geek out on Thomas’s brilliance, I highly recommend the “coaches film” mode on NFL’s Game Rewind. Because Thomas is so frequently out of view on the regular TV broadcast, this high-altitude angle, also called “all-22” because it shows all 22 players, is the only way to see him in action all game—running with receivers, charging opposing running backs, closing down throwing lanes. Of course, if you want to simply celebrate along with the Seahawks’ stellar defense, I won’t blame you. Just know that Thomas is a big reason for all the dancing.