Julius Thomas must come up big

Denver's TE needs to do what others haven't: find success against Seattle's D

Originally Published: January 31, 2014
By Jeffri Chadiha | ESPN.com

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Of all the Denver Broncos receivers who might impact Super Bowl XLVIII, tight end Julius Thomas isn't generating nearly enough attention. He's not as dynamic as Pro Bowl wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, as accomplished as slot receiver Wes Welker, or as productive as Denver's second-best wideout, Eric Decker. But anybody who's watched the Seattle Seahawks' defense understands that Thomas is facing the biggest challenge of his young career. How he handles it will go a long way toward determining who wins this game.

The Seahawks have had an uncanny knack for making star tight ends vanish during this postseason. They met New Orleans Saints Pro Bowler Jimmy Graham in the divisional round and held him to one catch. They faced another Pro Bowler, San Francisco's Vernon Davis, in the NFC Championship Game and limited him to two receptions for 16 yards. It wasn't as if those players didn't have quarterbacks who were trying to get them the football, either. They simply disappeared in the shadows of a defense that has been as punishing as any in recent memory.

[+] EnlargeJulius Thomas
AP Photo/Joe MahoneyTE Julius Thomas' breakout season included 12 TDs and a Pro Bowl selection.

This is what Thomas is up against and why his performance will be so intriguing. The third-year veteran blew up this season -- his 65 receptions and 12 touchdowns earned him his own Pro Bowl selection -- and he's been a dangerous third or fourth option in the Broncos' scheme. With Welker working the shorter underneath routes, Thomas has been able to torch secondaries on deeper patterns up the seams. At 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds, he has also been a reliable force in the red zone; quarterback Peyton Manning targets Thomas when smaller defenders attempt to cover the tight end.

Thomas has basically been the perfect example of the new-age tight end: long, fast and adept at using his body to his advantage. That's exactly the kind of tight end the Seahawks love to attack with a physical defense that features its own collection of agile, supersized specimens such as Pro Bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor.

"Those guys play together, they encourage each other, and [Chancellor] is one of the leaders on that defense," Thomas said. "They've defensively done a great job against two very good tight ends they've already played this year in the playoffs.

"As we've talked about all season from an offensive standpoint, we don't know which quarter, which guy it's going to be, but we know we are all going to have our opportunities to make plays. And we've got to make them when they come."

In many ways, Thomas could find himself in the same position that Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Jacoby Jones was in during last season's Super Bowl. The storylines in that contest focused on two brothers coaching against each other (San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh and Baltimore's John Harbaugh) and the final game for star Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis. But by the third quarter, Jones had made a case for MVP honors with a 56-yard touchdown reception and a Super Bowl-record 108-yard kick return for a touchdown. He stole the show.

What Thomas realizes is that Seattle's defense will make such a possibility much harder for him. Without fear of repercussions, Seattle's D will grab, taunt and smack any receiver who has the nerve to cross its path. With an impressive combination of size and toughness, the Seahawks seem like something straight out of a 1970s Pittsburgh Steelers highlight film. Seldom do you see defenses in today's game so adept at imposing their will on an opponent without facing the backlash of officials intent on making the game less violent.

Thomas has the look of a tight end who has become quite comfortable in an offense built around finesse. This will be his toughest matchup of the season because the Seahawks will make him earn everything he gets.

"When they turn the film on, they're going to see that we're a physical group," Chancellor said. "They pretty much know what to expect.

"But our thing is, we're going to hit from the beginning to the end; it's not just one moment. We're going to hit from the beginning to the end. That's just our team."

This is where Thomas's role becomes so interesting. He spent the first four years of his college career playing basketball at Portland State before eventually moving into football in his fifth year at the school. He also battled injuries during his first two seasons in Denver, so much so that he caught only one pass before this season began. Sure, he's been a breakout star, but he also hasn't seen nearly as many defenses that are focused on taking him out of the game.

We already know the Seahawks aren't going to let Demaryius Thomas kill them, and they surely want to defuse Welker's potential underneath. That leaves Decker and Julius Thomas as the two most likely targets to generate big plays for Manning. In fact, we've already seen Manning look more for Thomas in the Broncos' two postseason wins so far. The tight end had 14 combined receptions in Denver's wins over San Diego and New England, including a critical 21-yard gain on a third-and-17 play late in the fourth quarter of that victory over the Chargers.

As big as that reception was against San Diego, Thomas made it because of a coverage breakdown by the Chargers. The Seahawks won't make such mistakes, nor will they pass up an opportunity to get into Thomas' head with some well-timed trash talk.

"I'm expecting them to bring the best football that they have in order to beat us," Thomas said. "I don't think that their talking is our main concern. They have playmakers, guys that can really do some really good things on the football field. Those things will be higher on our list of things to make sure we're taking care of. However the game goes, we're prepared."

Those comments sound great during a midweek news conference. It will be a different story once this Super Bowl finally kicks off. We all know that players such as Manning, Russell Wilson and Richard Sherman will dominate the spotlight. Now we'll see if Thomas can take his game to heights that clearly will be difficult to reach.

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