Two seasons, nine games and one catch for five yards at age 25. That was Denver Broncos tight end Julius Thomas’ stat line entering this season. Thomas’ lone reception predated “Tebow Time,” even though few outside of Denver had heard of him before this season.
As it turns out, the former college basketball player just needed time to adjust to the game of football—and his star quarterback’s lofty standards. With one year of experience playing football at Tokay High School in Lodi, California, and one in college at Portland State, the learning curve was steep.
It can take two or three years for top college receivers to adjust at the NFL level—players that have played football their entire lives. Add the blocking responsibilities of a tight end and a quarterback that demand perfection, and what Thomas has been able to accomplish is remarkable.
With the help of Peyton Manning, Thomas went through a quick transformation—from anonymous to awesome. Thomas was and is a vital piece of the best offense in NFL history, and he could be a difference-maker in Super Bowl XLVIII.
There is no denying that Thomas’ meteoric rise has had a lot to do with the man throwing him the ball, but that doesn’t minimize his accomplishments. Thomas might be Manning-made, but that’s not a bad thing if it’s in the same way as wide receivers Reggie Wayne and Pierre Garcon.
"Peyton has said it before -- sometimes he needs to remind himself that I haven't been doing this very long," Thomas told NFL.com on Wednesday. "But by no means does he let me off the hook for anything. I'm just a guy who has to be there longer, who has to spend a little more time in the classroom preparing."
At 6’5” and 250 pounds, Thomas has the size, strength and speed to give the Seattle Seahawks fits. Thomas has two inches and nearly 20 pounds on strong safety Kam Chancellor, and he’s faster and bigger than Seattle’s linebackers.
The Seahawks like to be more physical than their opponent, but there is a very real chance they will lose that battle with Thomas. While the Seahawks have slowed down other great tight ends such as Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis, neither has the same quality of supporting cast as Thomas does.
A better comparable might be Rob Housler of the Arizona Cardinals because he was flanked by wide receivers Larry Fitzgerald, Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts. In Week 7, Housler caught seven passes for 54 yards on seven targets against the Seahawks according to ProFootballFocus (subscription required).
The officials also flagged the Seahawks three times while trying to defend Housler.
Thomas not only had a much better year than Housler, but his supporting cast and quarterback are even more capable. If there is any crack in Seattle’s defense, a player like Thomas is the right player to expose it. Thomas has put in all the work, and he’s become nearly uncoverable in certain situations.
For the most part, the Seahawks don’t change what they do defensively. In particular, the Seahawks use a lot of Cover 1 and Cover 3 with free safety Earl Thomas patrolling the deep middle and Chancellor coming down into the box. The Seahawks will also use Cover 2 shells in passing situations and against passing teams, so that’s also a possibility.
What doesn’t change is that the cornerbacks like to get physical at the line of scrimmage. The Seahawks have absolutely no problem putting their cornerbacks on an island against some of the best receivers in the league—a luxury having cornerback Richard Sherman on your team provides.
There is no doubt that defeating the Seahawks’ coverage can be difficult, but there are plenty of plays designed specifically to take advantage of what they do best. Manning already knows what plays to run against any particular defense, so it’s just a matter of determining what the Seahawks are playing and the Broncos being able to execute.
The Cardinals took advantage of the Seahawks by having Housler run underneath their coverage. This is a Cover 2 look from the Seahawks, but the outside linebacker has both a curl and a flat responsibility. By running both the curl and the flat route, Housler ended up wide open without a defender in the area.
It wouldn’t have mattered if this was Cover 1 Press, Cover 2 Man Free or Cover 3 Press Bail as long as the underneath defenders dropped deep into coverage with the wide receivers. By not giving the cornerback much coverage responsibility, the stress is on the linebackers and safeties to take care of the tight end.
The Broncos ran a similar play against the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game that turned into a first down. The notable difference is that the Patriots were playing man coverage across the board, but the concept is pretty much the same. The outsider receiver ran deep and to the inside to draw the defenders away from Thomas, who ran immediately to the flat.
Linebacker Jamie Collins had no chance to cover Thomas and did good just to chase him down. Regardless of what type of coverage the Seahawks play underneath, the man coverage or deep thirds on the outside are going to give Thomas the opportunity to catch passes in the flat and do his damage after the catch.
In a similar fashion, Housler was able to make a long catch against the Seahawks. On this play, the Seahawks have a single safety deep (Cover 3). The Cardinals set this play up by having a single receiver run off Sherman out of a heavy set.
The Broncos will do the exact same thing, except with two receivers running off the coverage. It’s the same basic concept as all of the previous plays, with a slightly altered route combination against a single deep safety look instead of Cover 2. The Broncos ran this exact play again in Week 17 against the Oakland Raiders with Brock Osweiler at quarterback and had similar success.
Lastly, one of the classic Cover 3 beaters is running four vertical routes. It’s on these routes where Thomas is perhaps the most dangerous.
By running Thomas and another receiver deep against Cover 3, the single deep safety has to make a choice on which receiver to cover. Thomas is big enough to absorb hits if safety Earl Thomas is even a little late coming over.
If Earl Thomas commits too early and Manning has enough time in the pocket, big plays to Thomas are possible down the seam. Not to mention that Seattle’s cornerbacks will be one-on-one with Demaryius Thomas and Eric Decker on the outside.
Thomas can split wide and beat one-on-one coverage with a linebacker, he can run short crossers to shake free from man coverage, he has the ability to gain positive yards after the catch and—above all—Manning trusts him. In a short time, Thomas has become the real deal.
Even a great defense is vulnerable to a player like Thomas, so expect him to be heavily involved in the game plan Sunday. Unless the Seahawks can match Thomas physically, disguise their coverage and pressure Manning, slowing down the Broncos is more theory than reality.