Baltimore safety Earl Thomas (left) closes in on a sliding Russell Wilson during the Ravens’ 30-16 win over the Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Baltimore safety Earl Thomas (left) closes in on a sliding Russell Wilson during the Ravens’ 30-16 win over the Seahawks on Sunday at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. (AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

Patterson: Thomas’ return to Seattle bittersweet

The safety who helped the Seahawks to their only Super Bowl title returned as an opponent Sunday.

During the first quarter of the Seattle Seahawks’ game against the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday at CenturyLink Field, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson kept the ball on the read option, found space around the left end, then slid down for a 7-yard gain before the Baltimore player who was sizing him up had a chance to deliver a hit.

It’s Wilson’s modus operandi to give himself up before the defense has a chance to administer any punishment, but no doubt Wilson recognized the No. 29 racing at him and was all too familiar with what that player is capable of doing.

Sunday marked Earl Thomas’ return to Seattle following his break-up with the franchise, and surely no one enjoyed Baltimore’s 30-16 victory more than the Seahawks’ former star free safety.

How good did it feel to Thomas? So much so that he used “really” three times before “good.”

“Today was big, man,” Thomas said after the game. “My teammates have been telling me all week they had my back, and it felt good for them to show up how they did today. It felt so good to get that win, to come here against an MVP-type quarterback, and the defense played the way we played today, man, we’re on the right track.”

And boy, it was weird seeing Seattle’s longtime defensive center fielder wearing purple pants.

Thomas, Seattle’s first-round pick in the 2010 draft, played nine stellar seasons with the Seahawks. He made six Pro Bowls, was named first-team All-Pro three times, and was arguably the most important member of the Legion of Boom defense that led the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl title in franchise history.

In the years I covered the Seahawks I always found Thomas to be one of the most fascinating characters in the locker room. He had this unique combination of intensity and awkwardness when he spoke to the media, and it was clear his mind worked differently than most — a right-brained individual in a left-brained world. I would have loved the opportunity to sit down with him, no recorder or notebook, and explore what made him tick.

But we all had to bid farewell to Thomas following his acrimonious departure. As glorious as his nine years in Seattle were, the final few months were excruciating, with Thomas holding out from training camp and preseason as he sought a contract extension that never came. The last image of Thomas as a Seahawk was of him flipping off the Seattle sideline as he was carted off the field with a broken leg last September in Arizona.

During the offseason Thomas signed a four-year, $55 million deal with the Ravens as a free agent — a contract far beyond anything the Seahawks were willing to offer a player turning 30 who had two of his previous three seasons ended by injury — and his Ravens teammates knew exactly how important this game was for him.

“It definitely meant a lot,” Ravens cornerback Marlon Humphrey said. “All week we kept saying, ‘Earl, we got you.’ The Seahawks moved on from him, I think everyone knew that they felt like he didn’t have it anymore. It wasn’t a happy go-away, it was more like, ‘You don’t got it anymore, we don’t really want you.’ So we felt like it’s just a game, but for Earl it was a little bit more.”

Therefore, CenturyLink Field was a brave new world for Thomas. It was the first time in his career he lined up on the opposite sideline, the first time he had to endure jeers from the home crowd. But none of it seemed to affect him.

“I felt focused,” Thomas said. “That was my main goal, just come in here and feel focused. I had my juice right.”

He played his role in the victory, notching five tackles and taking away much of the middle of the field as Wilson had his worst passing day of the season.

When Humphrey scooped up DK Metcalf’s fumble and returned it for the back-breaking touchdown in the fourth quarter, Thomas made sure the Seattle sideline knew it.

“You know I’m going to say something,” said Thomas, who wouldn’t reveal what he uttered. “I definitely said a little, what I had to say.”

For their part, the Seahawks had nothing but positive things to say about their former teammate’s return.

“Playing against Earl is fun,” Wilson said. “It’s cool seeing him on the side, I know how much he loves the game. We battled back and forth throughout practice, and then today. So I hold Earl in high regard, man. He played great, he was battling out there, back and forth. Earl’s one of the best ever to do it.”

“Yeah, he was talking,” Seahawks receiver Tyler Lockett acknowledged. “Not talking trash or anything, he was just getting the defense lined up, all that type of stuff, the stuff he did in Seattle, making sure everybody knew what they were doing, knew the adjustments.”

And whatever Thomas may feel about the Seahawks organization or the way his tenure in Seattle ended, he still holds his former teammates in high esteem. After the game was over, Thomas and Wilson met at midfield, and in a mutual show of respect they traded jerseys.

Seeing Thomas leave the field, Wilson’s jersey clutched in his hand, I couldn’t help feeling a touch of regret. Not that Thomas had gotten the best of Seattle in his return, but that Thomas holding Wilson’s No. 3 was probably the closest thing we’ll ever see to him in a Seahawks jersey again.

Follow Nick Patterson on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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