Seahawks free safety Earl Thomas (29) reacts to a play in the first half of a game against the Cardinals on Oct. 23 in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Seahawks’ pass defense has suffered from All-Pro Thomas’ absence

RENTON — On Monday KING 5 Sports tweeted out a question asking its followers if things would have gone differently for the Seattle Seahawks over their final four games had Earl Thomas been healthy.

Shortly after Thomas responded himself, tweeting: “Of course it would be different, we would have a first round bye I guarantee you that.”

While Thomas’s response might come off a bit bombastic, he may have a point. The numbers back Thomas up.

The Seahawks host the Detroit Lions in the wild-card round of the playoffs Saturday at CenturyLink Field, and Seattle’s trip through the postseason will be all the more difficult because of the absence of its star free safety.

Thomas was ever-present in the Seattle secondary since being selected in the first round of the 2010 draft, making 118 consecutive starts between the regular season and playoffs. However, the three-time first-team All-Pro’s streak came to an end in Week 12 against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers because of a hamstring injury. Then when Thomas returned after a one-game absence, he suffered a broken leg in a collision with teammate Kam Chancellor in Seattle’s 40-7 victory over the Carolina Panthers in Week 13. Thomas was placed on injured reserve, ending his season, and Steven Terrell was charged with the difficult task of replacing him.

“I think we’re adjusting really well (to playing without Thomas),” linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “I think Steve is doing really well out there. I felt like you’ve got to get out there and get those experiences and have those plays, see those formations to really grow as a player, and I think that’s what he’s done. He’s seen some formations that he didn’t necessarily get a chance to see from the sideline. The more he plays the more experience he gets, the more we play with him and learn him, the greater we’re going to be.”

However, the stats suggest Thomas’ absence makes a huge difference to Seattle’s defense. In the 11 games Thomas started the Seahawks allowed 16.4 points per game, in the five games Thomas missed Seattle allowed 22.4 points per contest.

The numbers are particularly stark in pass-defense efficiency. When opposing quarterbacks faced a Seattle defense with Thomas they completed just 59.8 percent of their passes, averaged just 6.2 yards per attempt, and threw nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions. Without Thomas they completed 66.2 percent of their passes, averaged 8.3 yards per attempts, and tossed seven TDs and only one pick. The passer rating against the Seahawks was 74.7 with Thomas and 106.0 without.

“Earl is a unique player,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll acknowledged. “He’s an extraordinary player, he’s proved that. No matter what position a guy plays, you miss that unique quality. We’re always talking about uniqueness and Earl is a fantastic football player. You’re just going to miss him. He’s got leadership, he’s got play-making in him and he’s got great experience. That’s Earl.”

Terrell, who spent most of his three seasons with the Seahawks playing on special teams, had never started an NFL game prior to Thomas’ first injury. The Seahawks say they’re satisfied with how Terrell has performed, but it’s nearly impossible to replicate Thomas’s range as the last line of defense in the secondary, as well as Thomas’ closing speed against the run.

Then Terrell was exposed in Seattle’s 34-31 loss to the Arizona Cardinals, most notably when Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer hooked up with J.J. Nelson on an 80-yard touchdown pass on a post route that beat Terrell deep.

Yet the Seahawks insist opponents aren’t changing their schemes to target Terrell. Though teams are passing more efficiently against the Seahawks without Thomas, they aren’t gaining more yardage — Seattle is actually allowing slightly fewer yards per game in the air without Thomas (225.4) than it did with him (226.4). The Seahawks have allowed just two long touchdown passes in the five games without Thomas, and the one of those wasn’t Terrell’s responsibility as it came down the sideline.

“(Opponents) are still running the same stuff,” said Chancellor, refuting the idea that opponents are targeting Terrell.

“People on the outside are going to assume everything, that’s what they’re supposed to do, I guess, because they’re on the outside. But it’s all the same stuff.”

And the Seahawks continue to believe in Terrell, who is continuing to learn.

“He’s getting better each and every single week,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. “He started off hot, and obviously there were a couple of plays a couple weeks ago that we want back. But those things happen. Without the experience, without being out there, without having those plays happen to you, how could you know? But each and every single week he’s continuously getting better. The consistency, he’s always been a consistent guy for us. You’ve got to take your lumps, it’s a good thing it happened then, and hopefully it won’t happen any more.”

For more on the Seattle sports scene, check out Nick Patterson’s Seattle Sidelines blog at www.heraldnet.com/tag/seattle-sidelines, or follow him on Twitter at @NickHPatterson.

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