Lightning Strikes: Earl Thomas Eclipses Troy Polamalu in 2011

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Pete Carroll talks about his time coaching at USC quite a bit. He mentions a number situations and players that helped shape his experience and his teams. No player gets referenced more than Troy Polamalu. He is the gold standard by which Carroll judges all safeties and team leaders. Having played safety himself in college, Carroll has a special affinity for that position, and has crafted his defenses to feature great safeties. That is why it came as no surprise when Carroll used one of his first two 1st-round draft picks in 2010 to select a safety, Earl Thomas.

Thomas, given the nickname “Lightning” by the Seahawks PR staff, had a unique blend of speed and toughness that allowed him to project as both the top cover corner and top safety on many scouts boards. At only 5’10” and 202 lbs, there were some that questioned whether Thomas could withstand the pounding at the NFL level. Only time will reveal the truth there, but he would not be the first safety to make it at that size. Polamalu checks in at 5’10” and 207 lbs, and played in 88 of his first 96 games.

Over his first eight seasons, Polamalu has averaged 64.5 tackles, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble, 3.4 interceptions, 10.25 passes defensed, and 3.6 tackles for loss each year. He made the Pro Bowl six times, the All-Pro team four times, and was awarded the AP NFL Defensive Player of the Year award in 2010. He is kinda good. Earl Thomas will be better…this year.

Thomas was a Pro Bowl alternate in his rookie season. He led the Seahawks in interceptions, with five, collected 76 tackles, 1 forced fumble, 7 passes defensed, and 1 tackle for loss. Four of his five picks came in the first six weeks of the season. Thomas went through a rookie lull before finishing strong with a sparkling performance against the Rams and then Drew Brees and the Saints, where coaches started to utilize him as a slot corner as well as a safety. He never dominated a game, but he rarely got beat. It was a solid, if not spectacular, rookie campaign. So why the bullish prediction for 2011?

Thomas is one of the most physically gifted players in the NFL, and he compliments those gifts with an outstanding work ethic, intellect and competitive drive. Rookies often make dramatic improvements from year one to year two in their careers. Safeties have similar requirements to read offenses as a middle linebacker. After all, if a safety makes the wrong read, it can often lead to a touchdown. Thomas has commented on how much the game has slowed down for him this season, and it showed in the season opener where he did his best Neo impersonation as he blurred all over the field while the 49ers were operating in normal space and time.

What was most impressive about Thomas’ opening game was that none of his memorable impact plays came against the pass. Thomas was constantly getting into the 49ers backfield on his way to collecting 9 tackles (7 solo) and 2 tackles for loss. Remember, he had one tackle for loss in his entire rookie season. That was always the part that did not quite fit when Carroll would favorably compare Thomas to Polamalu. The Steelers do-everything safety is often around the line of scrimmage making big hits. We never saw that out of Thomas last season. Part of that is the addition of safeties next to him (Kam Chancellor, Atari Bigby) that are good enough to allow Thomas to roam where he could not with Lawyer Milloy and Jordan Babineaux last season. Another part can be explained by the growth of a rookie into a veteran. Thomas still has plenty to learn, but he appears to have reached the nexus point where extreme talent meets with enough know-how to enable high-impact results.

Polamalu enjoyed a break-out sophomore season when he more than doubled his tackles, went from zero to five interceptions, and almost quadrupled his passes defensed. He did not get as many snaps as Thomas during his rookie season, which explains some of the jump, but that was also because he was not ready to play at that level until his second year. As great as Polamalu has been, as recently as last year, he is also getting older. He started his ninth season, at the age of 30, with a forgettable game. He collected six tackles, but made no significant plays as Joe Flacco was able to carve up the Steelers defense. Now, nobody is writing off Polamalu after one game. In fact, he will probably have another Pro Bowl season this year. He certainly won’t be getting better, though, any time soon. Thomas is a rising star, and Polamalu is the setting Sun.

Fans can count on a break-out game from Thomas at some point this season. A game that will have everyone in the NFL talking. He is good enough to win a game for his team from the safety position. It has not happened yet, but lightning will strike. Seahawks fans are hoping it strikes often.