Seattle Seahawks

Seahawks’ defense must reverse trends since Earl Thomas got hurt

Seattle’s Kam Chancellor (31) and Earl Thomas (29) collide in the Dec. 4 game against Carolina. Thomas, the three-time All-Pro free safety, broke his tibia on the play. In the past four games without Thomas, the Seahawks allowed their first 30-point games of this season.
Seattle’s Kam Chancellor (31) and Earl Thomas (29) collide in the Dec. 4 game against Carolina. Thomas, the three-time All-Pro free safety, broke his tibia on the play. In the past four games without Thomas, the Seahawks allowed their first 30-point games of this season.

The man who entered the league with Earl Thomas and has played seven seasons next to him says nothing has changed on the field since the All-Pro got hurt.

“Nah. It’s the same thing. Doing the same thing,” veteran strong safety Kam Chancellor said with a chuckle.

On Saturday, when the sixth-seeded Detroit Lions (9-7) come to CenturyLink Field for an NFC wild card playoff game, the third-seeded Seahawks (10-5-1) will play their first postseason game without Thomas since he became their first-round draft choice in 2010.

The three-time All-Pro free safety broke his tibia on Dec. 4 against Carolina, running into Chancellor as the safety pair leaped to intercept a Cam Newton pass.

Chancellor said this week that his role and responsibilities in the middle and back of the defense have not changed without Thomas next him in the past four games. Those have been the first four starts of fill-in free safety Steven Terrell’s career. Chancellor says he’s been in the same zone coverages, with Terrell stepping in for Thomas’ responsibilities deep in the middle.

What has changed: the results.

Numbers often don’t lie. They haven’t in the last month for Seattle without Thomas.

The Seahawks entered that home game against Carolina as No. 1 in the NFL in fewest points allowed, an average of 17 per game. They had not allowed more than 25 points in any game and had held opponents to one or no touchdowns four times. They were seventh in total defense (335.6 yards allowed per game) and 10th against the pass (235.5).

In the four games without Thomas, the Seahawks allowed their first 30-point games this season: 38 points in a blowout loss at Green Bay and 34 points in the home defeat to Arizona on Christmas Eve. Last weekend, they allowed the 2-14 San Francisco 49ers to score 23 points.

If the Los Angeles Rams weren’t so bad and rookie quarterback Jared Goff wasn’t so spooked, and eventually knocked out of the game on a hit by Richard Sherman, during Seattle’s 24-3 home win on Dec. 15, the Seahawks’ four-game average in points allowed without Thomas would be more than 24.5.

Over the past month-plus while Thomas missed the first games of his career, New England and the New York Giants both surpassed Seattle atop the league in fewest points allowed. The Patriots ended the Seahawks’ streak of four consecutive years leading the NFL in scoring defense, something no team had done since the Cleveland Browns of the 1950s.

So, yes, it’s been different for the Seahawks without Thomas. And not in a good way.

Seattle’s task now is to keep Thomas’ absence from being lethal to their hopes for a third Super Bowl appearance in four years.

“Earl’s a unique player. He’s an extraordinary player. He’s proven that,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “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 playmaking in him. And he’s got great experience. That’s Earl.

“We’re playing with Steven Terrell, and he’s doing a good job for us. He’s been a solid player for us. He’s played a lot; he’s played six or seven games it seems like.”

It’s only been five. But that Christmas Eve loss to the Cardinals so exposed Seattle’s defense without Thomas that for the Seahawks it seemed like it was two or three games of trouble in one afternoon.

Arizona’s Carson Palmer exploited the void left by Thomas’ injury. The 37-year-old quarterback fooled Terrell with his eyes, looking left to get Terrell out of the middle, then throwing there on a post route from the right by J.J. Nelson. No Seahawk was in the deep middle to help beaten nickel back Jeremy Lane. That became an 80-yard touchdown for the Cardinals.

Fooled by eyes instead of making sound reads is a mistake that Thomas, the game’s best free safety, just doesn’t make.

After Seattle tied that wild game with 13 points within the final 3 minutes, Arizona answered with an out-and-up route outside left by running back David Johnson. Chancellor was chasing. Johnson beat him for 29 yards up the sideline for the catch. That put the Cardinals in position to kick the winning field goal as time expired.

That 34-31 loss is why Seattle is playing the Lions on Saturday instead having the weekend bye as the NFC’s No. 2 seed and a home game next weekend in round two.

It was the kind of game-on-the-line, racing-out-of-nowhere play that Thomas loves to make, recklessly. Chances are the speedy, instinctive Thomas would have come sprinting over the top of Johnson to at least attempt to help Chancellor.

The Cardinals also used tight end Jermaine Gresham for a 34-yard catch early in that game. That also went at Terrell, where Thomas usually plays.

“It’s been a good learning experience,” Terrell said. “Just learning from the good. And the bad. You are going to make mistakes, but it’s just about learning from those mistakes.”

You can bet all the Honolulu blue in the football world that the Lions and quarterback Matthew Stafford are going to try to do the same thing to the Seahawks on Saturday night. Stafford is sixth in the NFL in yards passing (4,327).

Think former Seahawks wide receiver Golden Tate (91 catches) wouldn’t love to run a Nelson-like post route without Thomas back there to pound him?

“They’re not going to reinvent the wheel,” Seattle defensive coordinator Kris Richard said of the Lions. “We understand teams are not going to reinvent the wheel. They’re going to do what other teams have had success with. They’re going to do what they do best, and that’s what we anticipate.”

What the Lions do best is throw. Often. They don’t run much. Their leading rusher this regular season was Theo Riddick. He had 357 yards, the lowest team-leading total in the league.

Riddick is out with an injury, so Detroit is on its third-string tailback, 2015 undrafted free agent Zach Zenner from South Dakota State. This week, Seahawks defensive end Michael Bennett called Zenner the NFL’s best white-guy running back.

The Lions prefer to have Stafford, with his weird arm angles, throwing and escaping pressure with his underrated elusiveness.

“Their quarterback is a fantastic football player,” Richard said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

And like Arizona, Detroit will use its tight end to probe Thomas’ void. Eric Ebron was seventh in the NFC among tight ends with 61 catches, four fewer than Seattle’s Jimmy Graham.

“You’re talking about an athletic tight end,” Richard said. “He can get out, stretch the field, he’s got really good speed. He has a really good catching radius. Again, the quarterback does not hesitate to try to get him the ball.”

Stafford might fall over himself trying to get Ebron and others the ball where No. 29 for the Seahawks had been every game for seven seasons. Until now.

“(It’s) just Earl’s hustle. The plays Earl made,” Chancellor said. “You just can’t … Earl’s a special player. You just can’t replace him with just anybody. Steve’s doing a great job for us.

“But Earl’s just a special player.”

Terrell said he hears regularly from Thomas. They talked last week during a team dinner, and Thomas regularly chimes in on film review from afar.

“That’s Earl,” Terrell said. “He’s always going to be there.”

Until he’s not.

Gregg Bell: @gbellseattle