Under the Microscope: Joe Thomas

Every season there are good players who get overlooked or are undervalued across the NFL. As we approach the regular season, Brandon Thorn will look at players who are not getting the appropriate level of attention from big media – or even smaller entities – and put them under the microscope to evaluate their skills and traits and see what others might not. Next up is Cleveland Browns left tackle Joe Thomas.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Objective

The offensive line is typically the most forgotten position group in terms of publicity, and it is also my favorite position group in football, so naturally much of my focus will be placed on them moving forward; increasing awareness for the big men up front will be an important goal for me with this series. I do, however, have experience evaluating most positions, and a diverse set of players will be incorporated as this idea continues to grow.

I will focus on 10 core traits for each position, with an emphasis on the positive traits shown by the player; I want to look at what players can do. In order for traits to be deemed positive they will need to be consistently displayed throughout film study, not just during one game.

For this series, a minimum of six games – viewed and assessed in their entirety – will serve as a basis for each evaluation. Oftentimes I study more than six, as I prefer to gather as much information as I possibly can. An example of the broad context I aim to gather would involve evaluating multiple away games, home games, games against high and low level competition, bad weather, rivalry games, and games where the player is dealing with or coming off an injury. Personally, I believe, the more context built into my evaluation, the better the results.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Player Background

You may be wondering why the best left tackle in the NFL was selected for my second installment of Under the Microscope, considering part of the mission statement of this series is to “look at players who are not getting the appropriate level of attention from big media.” The reason is because Thomas doesn’t get the amount of credit he deserves, regardless of being known as a premier left tackle in the NFL. Not many entities or people have examined his career, namely his film, and broken it down to the micro-level to show how he has developed into a likely first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Plus, I needed a reason to watch his tape, and I think you will be happy that I did.

Thomas entered the NFL in 2007 after being selected 3rd overall out of the University of Wisconsin. Since then near perfection has followed, as Thomas has never missed a snap in his career (9,565 consecutive), and has made the Pro Bowl in each of his nine seasons in the league. More impressively, Thomas has been named to eight consecutive All-Pro teams, including six first-team All-Pro selections.

The spider graph above shines light on an often overlooked aspect of who Thomas is as a player – an elite athlete. Most observers recognize Thomas as a master technician, which he is, but the baseline of elite athleticism that he has crafted his proficiency on cannot be forgotten.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Stance Analysis

Observing and evaluating Thomas’s stance should fall under his own criteria for what is right and wrong. No one in the NFL today has a stance like his, and frankly I’m not sure anyone could pull it off (successfully) if they tried. Thomas’s stance is an anomaly.
As LeCharles Bentley of O-Line Performance (OLP) told me, “Any young player looking to model himself after Joe Thomas is looking to fail. He’s a walking exception to every rule.”

There are certain basic rules of a stance that serve as a starting point for all positions along the offensive line, but Thomas does not adhere to those rules, nor has he needed to. Thomas has one of the most unique stances in the NFL, and has it mastered.

tyron-smith-still-1First, the three 45s of the catch leg (toes, tibia, femur) are nonexistent in Thomas’ stance. The prototypical version of having the three 45s are on display here by Cowboys LT Tyron Smith:

The three 45s are on display here with Smith’s left leg. His toes, tibia, and femur are angled at a 45 degree angle, which is the ideal placement of the “catch” leg that allows the body to fight pressure with pressure through the eight angles of offensive line play.

As a player you don’t want both feet facing forward, because it severely limits balance, reactionary ability, and power. Despite not utilizing this stance, joe-thomas-still-1Thomas is able to overcome that through a technique he alone  mastered.

Hand position is the next unusual aspect of Thomas’ stance. Interlocked fingers over the drive leg and cupping the kneecap likely won’t be found in any coaching manual.

Rather than try and critique a first-ballot Hall of Famer’s stance, I will say that while there are rules to an ideal stance, not every player should have to fit into the same theoretical box.

Achieving elite status in the NFL at his respective position doing things his own way is part of what makes Thomas great.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Film Breakdown

Pass Protection

First, the three rules of pass protection to keep in mind as we go through these clips:

  1. Get out of stance
  2. Create space
  3. Obtain/maintain half-man relationship

I like to say that there are three certainties in life: Death, taxes, and Joe Thomas’ vertical set.

Context: Week 1 of the 2015 season, the Browns are on the road facing the Jets with 13:04 left in the 3rd quarter. It’s 3rd and 8 from the Browns 25-yard line.

Cleveland is lined up in the shotgun, in 11 personnel. Thomas has a 3 technique aligned inside, and a standup linebacker (Quinton Coples #98) lined up in a wide-9 technique. Quarterback Johnny Manziel executes a five-step drop and Thomas conducts a vertical set. Cleveland was a team in 2015 that vertical set its tackles often, which provides the QB with a taller, narrower pocket, as opposed to setting flatter and providing a wider pocket for the QB.

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Context: Week 15, Cleveland is playing in Seattle. It’s the 2nd quarter with 0:51 left on the clock, Seattle is up 17-10. It is 1st and 10 from the Browns 21-yard line. The offense comes out in 11 personnel. Thomas has Seahawks DE Bruce Irvin (#51) aligned in a wide-9 technique to his left.

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Thomas does an excellent job of utilizing the drive-catch technique™ to explode out of his stance (step 1 of pass protection), create space (step 2), and obtain the half-man relationship (step 3), all while keeping his hips square to the line of scrimmage (LOS). By keeping his hips square to the LOS he is able to fluidly move both outside and inside. When offensive linemen turn their hips prematurely to the rusher, it creates a soft inside hip, leaving them susceptible to inside-counter moves. Thomas is having none of that on this snap. Because Thomas is in such a great position, he has the ability to shut down Irvin’s attempted bullrush. In usual Thomas fashion, he makes this look incredibly easy, when in reality Irvin is a good NFL pass rusher who is not often shut down this quickly.

Context: Week 15 again. It is the 1st quarter, first drive of the game, score is 0-0. 3rd and 7 on Seattle’s 7-yard line with 8:39 on the clock. Crowd noise is a major factor, giving the pass rushers an advantage.

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Thomas has a knack for handling spin moves very well because of his outstanding balance, patience, and mental processing to diagnose that it’s coming. His base is maintained throughout the snap, which allows him to always operate from a position of power. When the feet get too close together (bicycle base) is when offensive linemen get into trouble, fall down, lunge, and otherwise embarrass themselves. When you have a rusher like Irvin, who has cat-like agility, staying in front of him  is itself a major challenge.

Here is another example of Thomas facing off against a rusher with a renowned spin move.

Context: Week 4 in San Diego. It is 2nd and 7 with 3:57 left in the 2nd quarter, and a 10-10 score. The Browns have the ball on their own 35-yard line. Chargers LB Melvin Ingram (#54) is aligned in a two-point stance as a wide-9 technique off the edge.

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Thomas demonstrates an uncanny knack of maintaining spatial awareness throughout each game, with an emphasis on protecting his inside. More often than not this limits the pass rushers’ options, putting the ball in Thomas’s court to dictate, not react to rushers. Offensive line play is a dictatorship, not a democracy. The reason is because offensive linemen – especially tackles – never want to put themselves in a position where they have to react to a rusher in space who is twice the athlete they are. The goal is to take away the pass rushers’ options, and increase your chances of surviving another down. Thomas has perfected this strategy.

According to Pro Football Focus, Thomas’s highest grade (+5.9) of the 2015 season came against the Baltimore Ravens in Week 5, so I decided to include this game in my evaluation for this piece.

Context: The Browns are in Baltimore facing the Ravens, it’s the 4th quarter with 3:29 left in the game and the offense faces a 2nd and 6 on the opponent’s 22-yard line. Cleveland is down 27-22, and this is the ninth play of the drive.

Up until this point Thomas has dominated when lining up against rookie Za’Darius Smith (#90), and this is the best pass rush Smith was able to muster the entire game.

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Despite getting beat by the rusher’s initial pass rush move, Thomas stayed the course, didn’t panic, and recovered to allow QB Josh McCown enough time to step up into the pocket. The result was a critical touchdown late in the game against a division rival.

Rarely do you see a player able to block two defenders at once, but that’s exactly what Thomas did in this same game with Baltimore.

Context: The game is in overtime with the score tied 30-30 with 12:40 on the clock. It’s 3rd and 2 on the offense’s own 43-yard line. Baltimore brings an extra rusher off the edge in order to pressure the QB at a critical juncture of the game.

Notice how calm and collected Thomas is on this snap, in a situation that could easily rattle most players.

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Next I took a look at the Browns Week 7 matchup at St. Louis, which boasts a host of premier defensive linemen, namely a guy who aligns on the defensive right side in DE Robert Quinn.

Context: Fourth quarter with 6:30 left, the Browns are down 24-6, and it is 1st and 10. The offense is in a no-huddle, and Thomas has Quinn (#94) aligned in a wide-9 technique with a full-go to rush the QB. This matchup was a heavyweight fight between two elite-level players who are trading high-levels of skill in an effort to defeat one another. An array of advanced technique was on display from both players.

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Thomas beats Quinn here with remarkable nuance and craftiness utilizing independent hand usage, very good timing, and deception.

Run Blocking

The best overall season for an offensive tackle that Pro Football Focus has ever graded belongs to Thomas in 2009. What you might not expect is that the majority of his spectacular overall grade (48.7) didn’t come from his pass-blocking grade (17.5), but instead came from his run-blocking grade (31.3), which also ranks as the highest run-blocking grade ever given in an individual season.

Thomas wins in the run game primarily with a Ph.D.-level of nuance, technique, mental processing, and very little wasted movement rather than overpowering strength and power. Thomas is simply more efficient than his opponent.

Let’s dissect where and how Thomas wins in a variety of run-blocking scenarios.

Context: Week 6 at home vs the eventual Super Bowl Champion Denver Broncos. It’s 1st and 10 on Cleveland’s 19-yard line with 2:49 left in the 1st quarter. Denver is ahead 3-0.

The offense comes out in 22 personnel and runs outside zone to the left side of the field. Thomas is tasked with sealing off LB Danny Trevathan (#59) in order to give the RB Isaiah Crowell (#34) an alley to run through. What transpires is a great example of the importance of being able to improvise, adjust, and execute in less than ideal circumstances.

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Typically on outside zone plays, offensive linemen are taught to seal their man inside on attempted reach blocks, but if they are unable to get around the defender the priority becomes driving them into the sideline, and away from the play. Thomas works his butt off to ensure that happens here.

Context: Week 14, the 49ers are in Cleveland, it’s the 4th quarter with 11:08 left in the game, and the Browns are up 17-3. It’s the fifth play (and run) of the drive. The offense runs power to the left side of the field, and Thomas works a combo block with the left guard to the backside linebacker.

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Mental processing is the trait that stands out most to me on this play. Making decisions quickly, with your teammates responsibilities in mind is a rare ability, but clearly Thomas acted because of this knowledge. The result was a 54-yard run in the 4th quarter, which helped keep the clock running, and the defense gasping for air as the Browns closed out the game.

[dt_divider style=”thick” /]Conclusion

Thomas has been the one constant in the Browns organization since 2007 despite going through six head coaches, five general managers, and 16 different starting quarterbacks during that time.

There are other offensive tackles in the NFL today who boast more athleticism, with prototypical stances, and dominant strength, but none of them grasp the nuances of blocking in the run and pass game the way that Thomas does.

I showed you a host of video clips against a multitude of different opponents in contrasting situations, and there was one constant throughout it all; No. 73 at left tackle, hunched over in his unorthodox pre-snap stance, plotting a way to take down another victim at the snap of the ball.

The best way to describe a great player is by a high level of consistent success, with the ability to rise above and transcend their surroundings. Regardless of the ineptitude around him, Thomas has done precisely that for nine years, and for all of our sake, here’s hoping to many more.

Follow Brandon on Twitter @VeteranScout. Read his piece on Kansas City Chief center Mitch Morse here.

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All film courtesy of NFL GamePass.

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