Earl Thomas III was in the picture and then he wasn’t, and that was the problem. As Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb burst through a hole midway through the fourth quarter Sunday, the Ravens safety turned and gave chase. Then he gave up. Chubb wasn’t getting caught, and after his touchdown sprint, 88 yards untouched, the Browns weren’t losing, either.
And so in the aftermath of the Ravens’ 40-25 loss at M&T Bank Stadium, Thomas became a convenient avatar for the defense’s careless collapse, a punching bag for critics dismayed by the unit’s historically bad showing. Here, they said, was a player owed $55 million over four years already giving up in Week 4. And for what?
“I tried to get there and couldn’t get there,” Thomas told a swarm of reporters afterward. “It wasn’t worth pulling my hamstring. I’ve been there before trying to chase [Houston Texans wide receiver] DeAndre Hopkins down on a screen, pulled a hamstring and was out [in 2017]. I wasn’t doing that today.”
The Ravens defense hasn’t done much of anything the past two games. One year after finishing as the NFL’s top-ranked unit, the Ravens have allowed 500-plus yards for the first time in franchise history and rank No. 27 overall leaguewide. Three straight quarterbacks have thrown for over 300 yards; the Ravens allowed just three such games in 16 games last season. A run defense that held the Miami Dolphins and Arizona Cardinals to a combined 41 rushing yards was gashed by the Kansas City Chiefs and Browns for 333 total.
Thomas, though, has not been the problem. Playing all but two defensive snaps over the Ravens’ trying three-game stretch, he has covered well, tackled soundly and managed the secondary intelligently. For all the intricacies of defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale’s “very complex” schemes that Thomas is still learning, it’s his well-established running mate, safety Tony Jefferson, and the Ravens’ top cornerback, Marlon Humphrey, who have most notably struggled with coverage busts.
Thomas, 30, might never return to the All-Pro form he showed over nearly a decade with the Seattle Seahawks. Lower-body injuries limited him to just 29 games over the previous three seasons. But both the film and coach John Harbaugh will tell you the same thing: Physically and mentally, Thomas is still sharp.
“He's doing a good job,” Harbaugh said Monday. “He's going to come up with some plays. He made eight tackles [Sunday], and he could have had a few more that he's mad about. So I'm pleased with where he's at, and to me, he's only going to get better in the system as he gets a better feel for it."
Fiction: Thomas has been exposed in coverage.
According to a review of the Ravens’ past three games, Thomas has been “targeted” in coverage — loosely defined as defending an intended receiver or in the vicinity thereof — just five times.
The results: one 34-yard completion, one interception (by cornerback Maurice Canady) and three incompletions. The Ravens had problems in their secondary throughout September, but a defensive back who allowed a 15.8 passer rating against Kyler Murray, Patrick Mahomes and Baker Mayfield was not one of them.
Martindale has deployed Thomas somewhat differently from how he played in Seattle, where he often covered center field in the Seahawks’ Cover 3 schemes. With the Ravens, Harbaugh said, Thomas plays more “split-safety” coverages, which split the field in half with Jefferson, but it’s not as if he’s playing a different game altogether.
"I think he's getting a good feel for that,” Harbaugh said. “He comes down, he blitzes, he plays 'robber' [a coverage that attempts to disrupt crossing, slant, in and dig routes]. … We play man [coverage], he cuts routes, and he's in the middle like he was in Seattle. It's a different defense, but it's still football. And all those free safety, strong safety tools are all things he does here, too.”
Thomas hasn’t padded his stats against slower marks, either. Against Kansas City, he helped force an incompletion against Mecole Hardman, who had an 83-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown in the Chiefs’ win, by running with the speedster after he beat cornerback Brandon Carr’s press coverage cleanly and took off on a diagonal route downfield.
Fiction: Thomas is washed up athletically.
At mandatory minicamp in June, Thomas acknowledged he wasn’t 100% healthy. “I have my days,” he said, rather ominously. Almost 10 months earlier, he’d suffered a season-ending lower left leg fracture. In 2016, he’d broken his tibia. A hamstring injury also bothered him in Seattle.
But even as Thomas has needed the occasional day off during practice, he can still fly around the field. Tracking data proves it. Midway through the fourth quarter in Week 3, Chiefs running back Darrel Williams took a handoff, cruised through a hole at the line of scrimmage and took off down the right sideline. Jefferson had been blocked out of the play; only Thomas could stop him.
According to the NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Williams reached 20.88 mph on the play, the fifth-fastest speed among all Week 3 ball-carriers. But Thomas, the weak-side safety, tracked him down from behind and limited a would-be touchdown to just a 41-yard carry. It was not a perfect play for Thomas, who seemed to slow just as Williams was breaking to the second level, but it was an athletic one.
Pro Football Focus rates Thomas as a poor run defender, but in the past three games, he had just two notable missed open-field tackles. Both came Sunday, and only one was egregious. In the second quarter, Thomas could not fully shed a block and take down Jarvis Landry on his 65-yard catch-and-run, though his attempt did send the wide receiver stumbling. In the third quarter, he was the second of four Ravens defenders to whiff on Chubb as the running back cut back for a 14-yard touchdown.
Thomas was otherwise sound. He zoomed around the Chiefs’ offensive line to harass Mahomes on an aborted shotgun snap, drew an illegal-blocking penalty against Kansas City tight end Travis Kelce and outworked Browns receiver Damion Ratley on a quick-developing screen that netted just 5 yards.
Fact: Thomas is still a football savant.
Thomas’ recall is the stuff of legend. In a 2013 Seattle Times story, he recounted with almost precise detail the circumstances of three interceptions he’d made the previous season.
Six years later, his mind hasn’t betrayed him. He thinks fast and plays fast — so fast that some receivers just give up on plays.
That seemingly happened Sunday. Midway through the second quarter, Cleveland faced third-and-3 near midfield. The call was a run-pass option, and Mayfield opted to pass. Landry, lined up in a reduced split to Mayfield’s left, ran at Canady for about 7 yards, then broke in. Thomas saw it coming from a mile away.
As soon as Mayfield kept the ball on the RPO, Thomas broke from his center-field position to where he expected Landry to turn. The pass was low and thrown a little too far inside, but Landry had by then given up on the play. He likely saw Thomas charging him, full steam ahead. Landry avoided a collision; Canady got the interception.
Thomas’ football IQ is obvious even before the snap and against the run. Against Arizona, he told cornerback Anthony Averett to change from playing outside leverage to inside leverage; the route Averett covered in the slot turned out to be an in-breaking route, and Murray never looked his way.
Against Kansas City, after inside linebacker Chris Board followed Mahomes on an outside handoff to Darwin Thompson, leaving Thomas with two gaps to cover, the safety saw Thompson’s ideal path before the running back did. Thomas helped cut him down for just an 8-yard gain.
His frustration with the Ravens’ play has shown up on film, too. Communication lapses and coverage breakdowns have bedeviled the secondary, even in his partnership with Jefferson. One example from Week 3 stands out — not a big play or even a costly one, but an illuminating one nonetheless.
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Early in the fourth quarter, on second-and-6 from the Chiefs’ 29-yard line, Mahomes dropped back to pass as the Ravens sent five rushers after him and dropped into a six-man zone. Kelce ran a dig route, starting upfield before breaking in after about 10 yards. Wide receiver Sammy Watkins ran diagonally behind him.
Watkins’ route occupied Thomas, the deep-middle safety, but it also forced Jefferson, playing underneath, to backpedal. That movement opened up the middle of the field for Kelce, who made an easy catch on the 14-yard gain. As soon as the ball reached Kelce, Thomas threw up his hands in frustration. Had he wanted Jefferson to trust him deep and be more aggressive underneath?
It’s hard to know for certain. But a week later, Thomas and the Ravens were still looking for answers. “All we can do,” he said Sunday, “is just go back to the drawing board.”
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