Seahawks’ Thomas the Earl of speed, key cog at safety

RENTON — When Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III launched a deep pass in the direction of Pierre Garcon last weekend, he very well may have underthrown the ball slightly because he was pushing off on an injured right knee. That could explain why Seahawks safety Earl Thomas ended up intercepting the pass.

It’s also entirely possible, however, that Griffin simply didn’t consider the fact that Thomas, who was in the middle of the field when the ball was thrown, could possibly cover enough ground to be a factor in the play.

Thomas, as he has done so many times in his three seasons in Seattle, turned on the jets and got from point A to point Big Play in amazingly short order. The result was an interception that helped keep momentum on Seattle’s side, setting up a field goal that pulled Seattle within a point at halftime.

“He makes an impact on a lot of different plays,” cornerback Richard Sherman said. “His speed and his athleticism are something you can’t train, you can’t teach. It’s what makes him one of the best.”

It isn’t just Thomas’ teammates who recognize him as one of the best. He was named to the NFC’s Pro Bowl team for the second year in a row, has been selected by a couple of unofficial All-Pro teams already, and it would not be remotely surprising to see him named an All-Pro when the Associated Press announces its team this morning.

When teams prepare to face running backs, receivers or quarterbacks with elite speed, you often hear coaches or defensive players say something along the lines of: “It’s hard to practice for that kind of speed.” That’s the effect Thomas can have on opposing quarterbacks.

“Talking to our quarterbacks, they say some of the coverage concepts that we use … even though they think some of the routes should be there, because of his speed they’re not,” defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “They’re just really aware where he’s at. Talking to Russell (Wilson) and Matt (Flynn), those are the conversations that we have about Earl.”

Thomas didn’t show up as much on the stat sheet early this year as he had in his first two seasons, in part, as he likes to point out, because he kept dropping potential interceptions. The ball has come his way a bit more of late, which led to an interception return for a touchdown against Buffalo last month and the key interception in last week’s playoff opener.

“He really did play really well the last couple of weeks,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “He was on the mark on every opportunity the last couple of weeks, and he has tackled real well coming out of the secondary with stuff underneath. I think his game is really to me the best it’s been at this time, and most consistent I think, and he’s feeling the best about it, and he’s really on it. It’s pretty hard to get the ball downfield with him back there.”

Sunday, the Seahawks face Atlanta, which has one of the league’s best passing attacks, and they’ll need Thomas’ range and coverage ability more than ever. With the stakes higher and the opponent poised to put stress on Seattle’s secondary, Thomas is ready to keep making plays.

“It’s the playoffs and I just told myself I want to challenge the quarterback as much as possible throughout the whole game,” said Thomas, who had three regular season interceptions, brining his career total to 10.

“The whole year I’ve been playing deep, deep, deep, but now I’m like five yards from the linebackers. If they see me that far up, they think they can throw the deep ball. It’s a cat and mouse game out there, but I’m definitely trying to up my game and put as much pressure on the quarterback as possible.

“In the big games, big-time players step up, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

Seattle’s oversized cornerbacks have gotten a lot of attention these past two years, and for good reason. However, Thomas is the player, as much as anyone, who makes one of the league’s best defenses click. One of the reasons cornerbacks Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman can play so aggressively in press coverage is that they know they have one of the NFL’s fastest players protecting the middle of the field behind them.

“He’s an invaluable member of this defense,” Sherman said. “None of this would work without any of us, but it definitely wouldn’t work without him.”

Of note

Lynch probable

Marshawn Lynch missed two days of practice with a foot injury, but the running back practiced Friday and is probable to play Sunday. Asked what it would take for Lynch not to play Sunday, Carroll said, “I don’t know, miss the flight? He’s fine, he’ll be all right.” Another big part of the offense who is probable is receiver Sidney Rice, who did not show up on the injury report until he missed Friday’s practice because of a knee injury.

Cornerback Byron Maxwell is doubtful because of a hamstring injury, and safety Jeron Johnson is questionable, also with a hamstring injury.

Redskin fined for slap

Trent Williams, the Washington tackle who hit Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman in the face with an open-handed slap/face shove after Sunday’s game, has been fined $7,875 by the league. Williams issued an apology after the game, and according to Sherman he also texted an apology right after the game. Sherman wrote on Twitter Sunday night that there were no hard feelings between the two.

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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