Earl Thomas – The Key to the Seahawks Cover 3 Defense

Teammates and coaches use one word to describe Earl Thomas: Intensity. Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn compares Thomas’s intensity in practice to that of legendary Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau whom he coached with the Miami Dolphins in 2005. Seattle head coach Pete Carroll says, “Earl is as serious a competitor as you could ever hope to be around.” Seahawks receiver Doug Baldwin adds, “Not only is he a phenomenal player … He’s one of those guys who’s fiery. He’s chippy [and] passionate about the game of football in a way that I have never really seen anybody be. The way he approaches the game, the practice, the meeting rooms – it’s top-notch. It’s second to none.”

Thomas is the emotional leader of the Seahawks’ talented secondary, better known as the “Legion of Boom” (video link). In addition to Thomas, the unit includes two other All-Pros: cornerback Richard Sherman, its best-known and loudest face, and Kam Chancellor, Seattle’s hard-hitting strong safety. Thomas himself has made two All-Pro teams in 2012 & 2013 as well; per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), he’s ranked in the top five amongst free safeties in two of the last three seasons.

Even other teams’ fan bases would love to have him. When he was drafted in 2010, the Philadelphia Eagles traded up to the #13 position in the draft, one spot ahead of the Seahawks. They ended up selecting Brandon Graham, a linebacker; Eagles fans still lament not taking Thomas instead.

Thomas grew up in Orange, Texas, a small town on the Louisiana border. A high school standout at defensive back, wide receiver, and running back, he received strong interest from a number of NCAA Division I programs and gave serious consideration to crossing state lines to attend LSU. However, after meeting with a high school friend attending the University of Texas, he decided to become a Longhorn.

Questions raised during Thomas’s recruitment over which position would best suit his slight build persisted even after his signing. At 5’ 10” and only 174 pounds coming out of high school, he seemed too small to play safety. However, while redshirting his freshman year, he worked hard to develop his body and focused full-time on honing his skills at defensive back.

In 2008, Thomas started at free safety as a redshirt freshman with 63 tackles (2nd on the team), 17 passes defended (also 2nd on the team and the highest ever by a freshman at the University of Texas), 4 forced fumbles, 2 interceptions, and a blocked kick. He followed it up with an equally impressive sophomore year, logging 65 tackles (2nd on the team), 16 passes defended (led team), 8 interceptions (tied for second in all of Division I) including 2 returned for touchdowns, and a forced fumble, earning first-team All-America honors in 2009. He then announced his intention to turn pro and declared himself eligible for the 2010 NFL Draft.

Seattle chose him with the 14th overall pick, the second of their two first-rounders (following left tackle Russell Okung at 6th overall). The Seahawks’ other selections in that year’s draft, the first of the new regime led by General Manager John Schneider and Carroll, included wide receiver Golden Tate, cornerback Walter Thurmond III, strong safety Chancellor, and tight end Anthony McCoy, all significant contributors to the team that won the Super Bowl last season.

Earl started at free safety for the Seahawks in Week 1 of his 2010 rookie season ‒ and every game since ‒ with 76 tackles (64 solo) and a team-high five interceptions that first year. He made the Pro Bowl in 2011, 2012 and 2013, and earned First Team All-Pro honors the last two seasons.

As the lone safety covering the deep middle, Thomas essentially plays “center field” in the Seahawks’ base Cover 3 defense while both corners vary between press coverage and just dropping back into a zone depending on the read.


Graphic courtesy Jessica Bell

What makes Thomas so important to the Cover 3 scheme is his speed; he ran a 4.43 second 40-yard dash during the NFL Combine. Great instincts and long hours in the film room studying opponent tendencies enable him to see the field thoroughly and cover large swaths of ground.

Pete Carroll has two commandments: Don’t turn the ball over; and Don’t give up the big play. Since Thomas is literally the last line of defense he is more responsible than anyone for preventing momentum changing plays. Here’s an example of where he generally sets up before the play in Cover 3:


Earl is on the far left of this still, positioned deep at the vertex of the defensive triangle. His initial responsibility is basically between the hashes and behind him. Sherman is at the top of the frame while Byron Maxwell is at right cornerback. The linebackers and the strong safety, Chancellor, are covering the underneath zones. Seattle rushes 4 down linemen on this play.

Notice how much of the field Thomas can cover. He sees three receivers to the left side of the offense and shades his initial position to that side of the field. There’s also a receiver on the right side of the offense that a linebacker must cover in the short zone, and for which Sherman has deep-field responsibility. Thomas identifies multiple receivers that are going deep, so he stays home in the middle of the field. He then sees Philip Rivers dumping off a pass over the short middle, the area vacated when Bobby Wagner follows one of the three bunched receivers deep due to a switch with Chancellor. At that point Thomas charges in from the middle of the field and joins in the tackle.

Here’s another example from Super Bowl XLVIII where Earl plays his standard “center field” position, reads the slant quickly, closes in on the receiver, and assists Maxwell on the tackle.

As you can see in the videos, Thomas’s speed and intensity come through on every play. Despite his relatively small size, he hits as hard as many much bigger players. He is constantly making adjustments on the field and reacts quickly to plays developing.

It’s this combination of intensity, instincts, work ethic, film study, and speed that makes Earl Thomas one of the best safeties in the game. And he’s cashing in: During the offseason, he signed a 4-year extension through 2018 worth $40 million with nearly half of it guaranteed, making him the highest-paid safety in the NFL. While Richard Sherman gets all of the press, Earl Thomas is the intensely beating heart of the Legion of Boom.

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Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking downmatchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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