Since the meteoric rise of the predominantly passing offense in the NFL, the free safety position has become one of the most valued positions on any team. A free safety with the range, intelligence and ball skills to be a game-breaker have been the backbone of many of the great defenses we’ve seen in the 21st century. These elite free safeties are so game changing because they not only make big plays themselves, but elevate the entire defense too. Now, we are witnessing former Longhorn Earl Thomas transform the second defense of his career in this hard-to fill-role.
In the 2019-20 NFL season, the Baltimore Ravens defense seemed to slide under the radar. But they were almost equally excellent, and it stemmed from playing in front Thomas.
For example, let’s look at this play from the Ravens’ late-season matchup against the New York Jets. On this play, the Ravens are playing a cover one man defense with a cover two pre-snap look. The look is achieved by having two high safeties, one of whom will come down to cover the tight end in man coverage in an attempt to confuse young Jets quarterback Sam Darnold.
The Jets’ play, a deep curl flats concept drawn below, should be successful against the Ravens’ coverage. In cover one, part of the corner’s responsibility is to ensure they cover any deep route between their sideline and the numbers. Corners in Peters’ position (the top of the drawing) would typically give the receiver running the deep curl plenty of cushion to prevent getting beat deep, resulting in an easy completion to the curl.
On this play, however, Peters sees that Thomas has nobody to cover in the deep middle and trusts Thomas’ excellent play recognition and range. The deep curl could have been a double move to draw Peters down and then beat him over the top, but Peters wasn’t worried about this possibility because of Thomas’ ability. This allowed Peters to aggressively jump the route for a big pass breakup.
Now let’s look at this play from the Ravens primetime matchup against the Patriots midway through the season.
In this play, the Patriots are running a route concept called “spacing.” Spacing, drawn in the image above, is a popular play call near the goal line because it involves multiple receivers running very close, short breaking routes so that zone defenders have to choose a route to cover, often leaving one or more open. On this play, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady sees the Ravens in man coverage so he knows he won't have a receiver freeup cleanly by choice of the defenders. What Brady does see is wide receiver Julian Edelman run a great stick route to create plenty of space.
Yet, what Brady didn’t expect were Thomas’ play recognition and explosive ball skills. In the image below, we see Thomas begin breaking on the route by Edelman the second Brady raises his arm to throw.
Thomas knows Brady will look for his favorite target in the red zone on an in-breaking route. When the ball is snapped, Thomas refocuses his eyes to the tight end, takes a dummy step in the tight end’s direction to fool the nearly unfoolable Tom Brady, then immediately flips his hips and plants his back foot to jump Edelman’s route and make a key pass breakup to bring about fourth down. There are only a handful of safeties in the NFL right now with the football IQ and overall explosiveness to make this play, and Thomas makes it look easy just one year off an injury. These are the plays that can change the course of a game, and not just anyone can make them, especially not in their first year after returning from an injury let alone in a new system.