RENTON, Washington — Earl Thomas considered it a sign of respect and it had nothing to do with where passes were being thrown.
The Seattle Seahawks' free safety noticed a new way that San Francisco tried to take him out of the game last Sunday. While the 49ers were careful not to throw in Thomas' direction very often, it was San Francisco sending receivers downfield to try and block Thomas that caught him by surprise.
It was the first time Thomas could remember an opponent trying to take him out of the play in that way. But as teams are learning, limiting Thomas' impact is one of the best ways to try and have success against Seattle's defense that ranks first in the NFL in total defense heading into Sunday's game against the Giants.
"They were sending receivers to the third level for free safety crack blocks. You never see that," Thomas said. "It caught me off guard but after the game I looked at it like a sign of respect and I've got to add that to my repertoire of how offenses want to take me out of the game."
An All-Pro last season, Thomas is having another award-worthy season. In his fourth season, Thomas is being asked to do more than ever as the patrol on the back end of the defense. He already has four interceptions, although none since Week 7, and leads Seattle in solo tackles (69) and is second in total tackles (85). About the only stat Thomas hasn't recorded this season is a sack.
Thomas is part of one of the most talented secondary units in the NFL.
"We're seeing a lot of teams adjust. You can't just play us head up. That's playing to our strengths if you play us straight up," Seattle cornerback Richard Sherman said. "You put everyone out there and bang heads with us that's a good matchup for us. I think teams are finding ways to get around that part of it."
As part of an effort to be more aggressive on defense, Seattle has gone almost exclusively to playing with one deep safety and asking Thomas to keep watch. Some teams show that look on occasion, but few play it with the same regularity as Seattle.
By playing with just one safety, it allows Seattle to have pressure at the line of scrimmage with a variety of linebackers and other defensive backs.
But what San Francisco did against Seattle was different. They decided not to test Thomas across the middle in the pass game and tried to get a body on him blocking in the run game. According to STATS, Inc., San Francisco did not target a pass across the middle of the field against the Seahawks. The 49ers mostly worked the sidelines with the pass game and tried to stay away from Thomas.
It was the second time this season an opponent chose not to attack the middle of Seattle's defense. Carolina also did in the season opener.
"Just the simple fact of not letting a team take me out of the game, because that was the game plan. They weren't throwing it to 'Area 29' whatsoever," Thomas said. "I can't fall asleep back there."
While Thomas wasn't tested in the pass game, the play that lingers is Frank Gore's 51-yard run late in the fourth quarter that set up the 49ers' winning field goal. Thomas had a chance to slow up Gore about 10 yards downfield but came up too aggressively on the play and was caught flat-footed when Gore cut back to his right and found the open field.
Thomas said that play and the loss as a whole is a chance for Seattle to refocus and not become complacent before the playoffs arrive.
"It's a very humbling experience," Thomas said. "I'm glad it happened and we still have a chance to be where we want to be."
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