The acquisition of Earl Thomas has re-energized the Ravens fan base after a trying day of losing starters on Tuesday.
I wanted to do a review of his play to become more familiar with his play, much like I did for Tony Jefferson when he signed prior to 2017.
I’ll stick with the same format, so these pieces are comparable.
Ideally, I would select 4 games from the most recent season to review, but Thomas only played 4 games in 2018 and played so well, I don’t think those games are representative of the span of his results. So, I selected 4 games from 2017-18 to review every play for Thomas to get an idea of his style and usage. Those included:
2017: @Ten week 3
2017: @NYG week 7
2017: Atl week 11
2018: Dal week 3
The process is simple…watch every play from those games, identify Thomas, and note his impact on each play, in addition to recording positioning, targets, yards etc. Here are my notes by play which I’ll include here for folks who’d like to follow along with Game Pass:
The shorthand I use here begins with positioning at the snap and is followed by a description of the play and Thomas’ contribution to it. PL16 (16 + 0)  means a pass left for 16 yards, which was caught 16 yards from the line of scrimmage (LoS) and advanced for 0 additional yards after the catch (YAC). The  indicates a pass caught between the numbers and left hash where  through  are meaningful entries.
2017 Week 3—@ Titans
— (Q1, 1:12) Cover 2 on OLS streaked from 10 yards off OLS to tackle Henry RL-5
— (Q2, 15:00) Single high, Mariota RL14 TD negated by Decker OH on Chancellor, Thomas late getting over
— (Q2, 14:11) Cover 2, Mariota to Decker PL16 (16 + 0) , Thomas quick tackle in zone to deny 3rd/19
— (Q2, 0:31) Single high, Lane tripped in coverage of Taylor PL11 (9 + 2) , Thomas closed to tackle
— (Q3, 7:47) SCB on OLS vs. Matthews, WR screen PL55 (-2 + 57)  to Matthews, blocked effectively by LT Lewan
— (Q3, 5:25) Single high, dropped shoulder into Henry on RM7 who was already down
— (Q3, 3:57) Thomas drops from nickel on ORS to middle deep, Mariota to FB Smith PR24 (17 + 7) , Wilhoite left to cover FB
— (Q3, 1:49) Thomas rotated from single high to SCB on ORS, Henry RL75 TD, Thomas had good angle but blocked by Matthews 53 yards downfield
— (Q4, 12:48) Single high, Henry RR25 well blocked to outside Thomas tentatively approaches as Wagner pushes OOB
2017 Week 7—@ Giants
— (Q1, 11:26) Single high, broke left to bracket Engram INC 19 yards 
— (Q2, 14:56) Single high, Darkwa RM6, Chancellor tackles, Thomas second to tackle.
— (Q2, 11:58) Single high on 1st and goal from 5, Thomas (with Sherman) too slow to pick up TE Engram on PR5 TD (5 + 0) 
— (Q3, 15:00) Single high, Good coverage of Vannett 20 yards , Manning threw away
— (Q3, 13:36) SS on OLS, pursued and contained King RR-8 reverse, tackled by Wagner
— (Q3, 7:30) Single high, Manning extends, Engram beats Chancellor wide open on 1st/10 PL73 (18 + 55) , Thomas whiffs on Engram at 28, negated by Engram step OOB (illegal touch)
— (Q3, 5:45) SS ORS, Thomas covered TE Engram who broke well to outside but pressure forced INC
— (Q4, 11:02) Manning to Engram PM19 (2 + 17) , Thomas blocked by TE Ellison
— (Q4, 2:10) Single high, Manning throws to WR Rudolph 10 yards , Thomas hit as ball arrives, no PD credited
— (Q4, 2:08) SS OLS, Thomas tackles Engram in open field PM5 (3 + 2) , Thomas quick tackle denies 3rd/10 play negated by IH Griffin
— (Q4, 0:51) Single high, Manning for Rudolph 17 yards  Thomas drops bread basket INT (no PD credited)
2017 Week 11—Falcons
— (Q1, 8:43) SCB opposite Sanu; jams Sanu to break up slant to Hall at goal line, no PD credited, ball popped up for near INT
— (Q1, 8:37) Single high, crashed A-gap to hit Coleman RR3 at 2, Richardson gets only tackle credit
— (Q2, 3:14) Cover 2, Ryan to Coleman PM15 (1 + 14) , Wagner, Thomas clean up after Wright failed tackle attempt converting 3rd/14
— (Q3, 9:30) Cover 2, Ryan scrambles RL14 Thomas converges with Maxwell to force slide, converts 3r/8
— (Q3, 7:33) Single high, Ryan to Toilolo PL25 TD (25 + 0)  beats Garvin, Thomas late high hit flagged for UR
— (Q3, 0:18) Single high, Ryan to Jones PM7 slant (5 +2)  beats Lane, Thomas shoestring tackle unable to deny 3rd/7
— (Q4, 15:00) SS OLS Ryan to Ward PL11 (-2 + 13) , Thomas races up for open field tackle
— (Q4, 14:20) Single high Thomas cleans up on missed tackles inside to force Ward OOB RR9
— (Q4, 2:00) Repositioned McDougald to OLS then assumed single high stance, man coverage held up well with Thomas not committing to any route, Richardson S-5 denies 3rd/3
2018 Week 3—Cowboys
— (Q1, 6:48) Elliott RR7, Thomas open field stop
— (Q1, 6:09) Three-point stance on left edge, blocked by RT Collins to lead Austin RR13 jet sweep
— (Q1, 5:37) Single high, Prescott for Gallup, PD Flowers, Thomas shoestring interception, return negated by inadvertent whistle
— (Q1, 1:54) SS OLS, Prescott pressured throws OOB near Beasley covered by Thomas
— Q2, 15:00) SS OLS, Thomas covered TE Jarwin as Mingo unblocked S-10 on play action
— (Q2, 14:21) Single high, Elliott RL11, Thomas up to tackle
— (Q2, 9:23) Single high, Thomas crosses field to tackle Elliott RL19
— (Q2, 8:02) Cover 2, Thomas unable to cover Beasley crossing PL18 (10 + 8) , other safety Thompson does not move up
— (Q2, 5:39) Lines up on edge on ORS initially covers Elliott on wheel route, then stops, Prescott to Elliott PR31 TD negated by illegal touch
— (Q2, 1:52) SSORS covers Elliott leaving backfield as Reed S-7
— (Q2, 1:10) Cover 2, Prescott to Elliott PR8 (-8 + 16) , Thomas tracks down through traffic for tackle to deny 3rd/17
— (Q3, 11:56) Edge, Rushes passer off ORS, blocked by RT Collins on S-2 by Kendricks
— (Q3, 9:00) Single high, takes vicious stiff arm from Elliott pushing OOB on RR21
— (Q3, 6:33) Lined up on offensive right edge, rushed QB, blocked by Elliott
— (Q3, 6:00) Single high, Prescott to Austin PM0 (0 + 0) , Thomas good angle in traffic stretched Austin 35+ yards across field to push OOB on right sideline for unusual no gain
— (Q3, 4:37) Cover 2, maintained good coverage of Austin  at goal line as Clark sacked Prescott for no gain to deny 3rd/6
— (Q4, 10:57) Cover 2, Elliott RL26, FF McDougald from behind, Thomas good angle from opposite side of field maintains separation from tackle, Coleman FR for Seahawks
— (Q4, 8:43) Single high, juked by Elliott cutback on RM19
— (Q4, 8:18) Cover 2, Prescott to Gallup PL17 (9 + 8) , Thomas cleans up as Gallup escapes Flowers
— (Q4, 7:15) Single high on ORS, Prescott shovel to Austin PM3 TD (-4 + 7) , Thomas shadowing Austin unable to keep pace across field
— (Q4, 4:33) SSORS unable to provide bracket for crossing Beasley, Prescott to Beasley PM16 (11 + 5) 
— (Q4, 4:25) SSOLS, Prescott scramble RL11, Thomas blocked by TE Swaim
— (Q4, 3:17) Cover 2, Wagner PD in coverage of Jarwin, tipped then collected by Thomas for INT, Thomas flagged for taunting to negate short return
Some general notes:
In these 4 games, Thomas lined up in a variety of positions including:
Single high safety: 160
Deep safety in cover 2: 40
SS on offensive left side (OLS): 11
SS on offensive right side (ORS): 9
Slot Corner: 9
One of 3 deep safeties at snap: 2
Edge at LoS: 3
So, 202 of 234 snaps he was on the back end without obvious man coverage responsibilities at the snap. He’s a pure centerfielder, which is quite different to the varied positioning I studied from Tony Jefferson’s 2016 season.
In part, Earl’s alignment was a function of the safety he was paired with, Kam Chancellor, his Seahawks teammate for 8 seasons (including the first 2 games reviewed from 2017), who was much more infrequently used as a deep safety. It’s sometimes been said that the Ravens were more effective because Jefferson and Weddle were interchangeable at FS/SS, but I never really bought that. Jefferson has been far more effective close to the LoS in run support or man coverage of the TE. Given Thomas’ skill set and past usage, I think it’s likely they’ll see more defined roles in Baltimore.
When Thomas was not used as a deep safety, things did not always go as well for the Seahawks. They surrendered 3 TDs among his 7 SCB snaps against the Titans (see above).
Earl consistently takes excellent pursuit angles on run plays, but is very judicious about contact. As a deep safety, he has fewer opportunities to impact run plays, but I also rarely saw him put his head and neck into a play when the yards involved were not critical. As second man to the ball, he prefers to maintain his position between the goal line and the ball carrier and does not involve himself unnecessarily for assisted tackles. That said, Thomas is an aggressive hitter/tackler as the last line of defense and when hitting a receiver.
The other thing I noticed from these games was an understanding of what he needed to accomplish in terms of containment on run pays, including those in the offensive backfield. He didn’t always make the tackle personally, but he was positioned so gains would be minimized.
Thomas has been compared to Ed Reed for the last few days, which may not be fair to either. However, it’s difficult to watch him play without thinking of Tom Brady’s wristband (“Find 20 on every play”), because opposing QBs are aware of his position and actively avoid the deep middle. I saw heat maps of passes with and without Thomas on Twitter this week which stunningly depict the difference in the location of passes with and without Thomas in the Seattle lineup. In these 4 games, I did not see a single occasion where the opponent tried to run a route specifically to beat Earl over the top.
When new @Ravens safety Earl Thomas is on the field, opposing QBs avoid the deep middle of the field.
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) March 14, 2019
Said otherwise, while he made some plays on the ball personally, he made an even greater contribution to the Seahawks defense with the portion of the field he took away. If he’s able to maintain this level and style of play, he could be highly complementary to the deep and talented set of Ravens CBs.
In terms of his choices on the back end, he is patient, but there comes a time in most plays where a FS must break on a route or provide no coverage value on a play. Thomas consistently chose to break on a route and often was wrong. However, when correct he would frequently have an opportunity for a PD, INT, or quick tackle to deny YAC.
In these games he had a hand in 3 big pass plays allowed:
- Titans, 2017/W3 (Q3, 7:47): He lined up as the nickel opposite Matthews. Mariota threw a bubble screen left to Matthews and Thomas was blocked off the play by LT Taylor Lewan for what became a 55-yard TD (-2 + 57 YAC).
- Giants, 2017/W7 (Q3, 7:30): He lined up single high and TE Engram beat Chancellor for a 73-yard TD (18 + 55 YAC) on which Thomas whiffed on the tackle approximately 28 yards from the LoS. Fortunately for the Seahawks and Thomas, the play was called back because Engram stepped OOB before the reception.
- Cowboys, 2018/W3 (Q2, 5:39): Thomas lined up on the edge and covered Elliott on a wheel route then oddly turned back towards Prescott. Prescott threw a 31-yard TD to the wide-open Elliott up the right sideline, but the play was again wiped out for an illegal touch, because Elliott had stepped OOB. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good.
Thomas was used as a pass rusher just twice in these 4 games (both against Dallas in 2018), including 1 snap with his hand on the turf. He did not generate a pressure.
Thomas was penalized twice in these 2 games. The first was an unnecessary roughness while trying to dislodge a TD from Toilolo in the end zone vs Atlanta. The second was a foolish taunting flag after an interception against Dallas. Those were his only 2 flags (accepted or declined) in 2017-18.
Earl Thomas will turn 30 in May, so he’s a year younger than Weddle was when he arrived in Baltimore and began 3 straight Pro Bowl seasons. Based on his age, the Ravens must have reasonable expectations of decline, but there are offsetting positives.
His positioning in Seattle and symbiotic relationship with Chancellor could be replicated here with Jefferson, which could well enhance Tony’s play. It was with emphasis of individual strengths the Ravens maximized the production of the WLB platoon last season. In the absence of scheming to the contrary, the pairing should leave both Thomas and Jefferson free to do what they do best.
Thomas also brings the Ravens a second signal-calling option after the Ravens lost their primary defensive QBs from 2018 with the cut of Weddle and Mosley’s signing with the Jets. I think Jefferson makes more sense as the signal caller in 2019, based on experience with the system and proximity to the LoS. However, it’s important to have a natural backup alternative who is already an every-down player and not, say, an ILB forced to play every down in order to wear the green dot. Regardless of whether he relays the signals, I expect Thomas will play a central role in communication/positioning in the secondary.
Is he the greatest free agent the Ravens have ever signed? He has a lot of competition, including 4 key contributors to the 2000 defense (Sam Adams, Michael McCrary, Tony Siragusa, and Rod Woodson) along with Shannon Sharpe, Trevor Pryce, Matt Birk, Derrick Mason, Elvis Dumervil, and Eric Weddle.
However, it’s not hard to imagine Thomas having a similar impact on the Ravens defense over the next 4 seasons.