After his post-NFC Championship Game outburst, cornerback Richard Sherman is the face of the Seattle Seahawks defense heading into the Super Bowl. If Seattle is going to win football's biggest game, though, the key to victory lies with free safety Earl Thomas.
For all that's made of the Denver Broncos' weaponry on the outside, stopping them over the middle is just as critical. Thomas may not have Sherman's talent for self-promotion, but the fourth-year pro has been every bit as dangerous on the football field.
Thomas, whom the Seahawks drafted 14th overall in 2010, is coming off a career year. His 105 tackles in 2013 were the first time he's topped the century mark in the pros. His five interceptions tied a career best, and Thomas pitched in a career-high two forced fumbles as well.
Thomas has been mentioned as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate, and Seattle head coach Pete Carroll credits him with being a big part of what the Seahawks are able to do as a unit defensively, per Bob Condotta of The Seattle Times:
It depends on the personnel that you have and how much you can stick to that. That’s what you always hope to do. I think everybody in coaching would like to just get in your base defense and dig in and do it really well. We’ve been able to grow more toward that as our corner play has been such a factor and the back end has been such a factor with Earl Thomas back there.
It's in coverage where Thomas is going to be tested with regularity on February 2. Luckily for the Seahawks, it's an area where Thomas has thrived this season.
Per Pro Football Focus
In fact, only Eric Berry of the Kansas City Chiefs, Troy Polamalu of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Devin McCourty of the New England Patriots were awarded better grades among safeties in coverage in 2013 by Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Much has been made of Denver's offense this season. Quarterback Peyton Manning set NFL records in passing yardage and scoring strikes. Outside receivers Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker combined for over 2,700 yards and 25 touchdowns. Slot man Wes Welker pitched in 10 more scores.
However, the piece that may well have turned the Broncos from well-oiled machine to unstoppable juggernaut is the emergence of tight end Julius Thomas.
The third-year pro went from holding down the bench with his butt in 2012 to one of the NFL's most productive tight ends in 2013. Granted, Thomas ranked eighth among tight ends in catches and yardage, but only Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis bested Thomas' 12 touchdowns.
That high touchdown number, relative to his reception total, belies Manning's comfort with Julius Thomas in the red zone. A glance at his third-down numbers does the same for Manning's trust in him on that all-important down.
|Player||Total Rec.||3rd Down Rec.||3DR %|
Of the Broncos' top four receivers, only Welker caught a higher percentage of his passes on third down. It will fall to Earl Thomas to keep those passes from finding their mark, and odds are there won't be a lot of help forthcoming.
Seattle's other defensive backs will have their own problems during the Super Bowl.
Julius Thomas won't be Earl Thomas' only problem on Sunday, of course. Fifteen of running back Knowshon Moreno's 60 catches this year came on third down.
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Thomas will have to walk something of a tightrope at the Meadowlands. He'll need to be close enough to the line of scrimmage to help in run support and be aggressive in coverage, but not so close that a receiver gets behind him for a big play.
It's not going to be easy, and to an extent Manning and the Broncos will get theirs regardless, but they bludgeon teams to a pulp by constantly converting 3rd-and-intermediate tries. The receivers spread the field, leaving the middle wide open underneath for Thomas and Moreno.
Manning dumps it off, the chains move and we all get to hear "Omaha!" 38 more times.
Mind you, this is far from the only key to a game filled with them. The entire Seattle defense needs to play lights-out football. Simply put, if the Seahawks try to match scores with the most prolific scoring offense in NFL history, they're sunk.
With that said, though, while the hype will surround Sherman's matchup with Demaryius Thomas (no relation to Julius, who is in turn no relation to Earl) and the Seahawks' efforts to pressure Manning, taking those easy hits over the middle away from the Broncos is absolutely critical for the Seahawks to win.
And Earl Thomas is the man who has to take them.
All player stats, unless otherwise noted, come from ESPN.com.