Earl Thomas key to stopping Peyton

Forget Richard Sherman; versatile FS has tools to knock Denver QB off his game

Originally Published: January 30, 2014
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman has talked so much -- and so continually -- this week that many people have ignored some of the more interesting subplots of Super Bowl XLVIII.

One is that it's highly unlikely that Denver quarterback Peyton Manning will spend the bulk of his time challenging a talented defender like Sherman. Manning didn't get this far in his career by being reckless or dumb.

However, how Manning fares against Sherman's less bombastic teammate, free safety Earl Thomas, is a more fascinating angle to ponder as this game nears.

Sherman may claim to be the NFL's best cornerback, but Thomas is the most important defender in this contest. As much as people talk about how Manning terrorizes cornerbacks, it's the damage he inflicts on safeties that really puts opponents in positions they seldom want to be. He forces them into ill-advised movements with his eyes, tests them with his constant hand gestures and demands that they be at the top of their game if they're going to keep up with Denver's fast-paced offense. For a player as gifted as Thomas, it's the ultimate opportunity to prove how much he means to a Seahawks defense that has been the league's best all season.

[+] EnlargeEarl Thomas
MCT via Getty ImagesEarl Thomas' versatility at the back end of Seattle's defense makes life easier for the rest of the secondary.

"The game is so slow to Peyton because he has seen it all," said Thomas. "That's why he is so in control and he can take his time. I think he installed the offense, so he's definitely in control of that offense. He understands how the defense wants to attack him, and we know how he wants to attack us. That's why it's going to be such a great matchup."

The 24-year-old Thomas is so essential to the Seahawks defense for one simple reason: He can do all the things that make life easier for players like Sherman. Thomas is fast enough to break up passes all over the field. He is tough enough -- despite being the smallest member of the Seattle secondary at 5-foot-10 and 202 pounds -- to bang with bigger running backs around the line of scrimmage (as his 105 tackles this season suggest). Thomas also is such a student of the game that Sherman said, "Earl Thomas might have one of the highest football IQs I've ever heard of, and he studies the game to a T. He studies it day, night, night and day. In the morning, at night -- he's probably studying it right now."

Those are critical strengths for a safety facing Manning because few ever really sneak inside his head. Ed Reed could do it when he played for the Baltimore Ravens, and it helped that team enjoy a certain degree of success against Manning. Troy Polamalu could do it for the Pittsburgh Steelers whenever that team was facing the star quarterback as well. In fact, a fair number of Manning's biggest playoff losses have involved a team that employed a talented safety on the back end (with former New England standout Rodney Harrison joining that group).

That position is so vital in a game against Manning because he defuses every other aspect of a good defense with relative ease. The Seahawks may have a vicious pass rush, but so did the Kansas City Chiefs at one point earlier this season. Every time they faced the Broncos, Manning unleashed the ball so quickly -- usually in less than three seconds -- that the idea of harassing him in the pocket became almost a running joke. There were entire games that Manning never even hit the ground.

Manning is equally effective at finding the weakest links in an opposing secondary. As much as Sherman has become the unquestioned focus of the pregame hype for this contest, it's his less-heralded teammates who will be on center stage come Sunday. Walter Thurmond, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane had better get ready for plenty of passes flung in their direction. Manning will be eager to see how well they hold up against talented targets like Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker and Wes Welker.

What all this means is that Thomas has to affect this game with both his mind and his athletic ability. Seattle loves to play zone coverage, but Thomas, who played cornerback in college, might have to match up with Welker or tight end Julius Thomas on occasion. As Reed often did in his prime against Manning, Thomas also will have to pick his spot to take his chances. For a defense that led the league in takeaways, big plays will be critical to whatever success the Seahawks hope to create against a future Hall of Fame quarterback.

Thomas already has made it clear that he loves the idea of intimidating an opposing quarterback.

"The whole game, I'm just staring at the quarterback," Thomas said. "I don't care if it's a huddle situation or any situation. I just want to let him feel me. I look into his eyes the whole time. I can kind of tell. I don't want to get my traits out, but I understand the game, and I know how to play it."

Thomas, like all his partners in the Seahawks secondary, doesn't lack for confidence. Unlike the other three starting defensive backs, though, he is the only one who knows how it feels to be coveted. While Sherman, Kam Chancellor and Maxwell (who has replaced suspended starter Brandon Browner) were lower-round draft picks, Thomas was the 14th player selected in the 2010 draft. He likes to claim he was slighted that year -- the Philadelphia Eagles decided not to select him after trading up -- but he doesn't have nearly the chip on his shoulder that his teammates carry on theirs.

Instead, Thomas is equipped with the knowledge that he was brought to Seattle to be the type of difference-maker the Seahawks sorely needed. He has rewarded the franchise's faith with three trips to the Pro Bowl, two first-team All-Pro nominations and the wide-held belief that he is the best at his position today.

This week, Thomas raised the expectations on himself even higher by saying, "I want to be the best -- not just safety or corner -- but defensive player [in the league]."

If Thomas truly has his sights set on that goal, then Sunday would be the perfect time for him to start adding to his growing legacy.

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