Seattle Seahawks

Earl Thomas yields to Bryan Walters as Seahawks’ primary punt returner so he can focus on defense

The Earl Thomas Experiment has ended after one game, apparently.

Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Wednesday “that after the long experiment and the time we spent doing this,” All-Pro safety Earl Thomas is no longer the Seahawks’ primary punt returner.

The coach cited not the risk of injury but the need for Thomas to focus solely on defense.

It seems Thomas was so driven to succeed as a first-time NFL punt returner that he devoted too much effort to it — at the expense of being, well, an All-Pro safety and the backbone of the Seahawks’ top-ranked defense.

The change means reserve wide receiver Bryan Walters, a Kirkland native and former Charger, will be the primary punt returner when Seattle (1-0) plays Sunday at San Diego (0-1) — and for the foreseeable future.

That is the reason Walters is on the team. It’s why Seattle re-signed the Ivy League’s career punt-return leader days before last week’s opener after making him one of its final preseason cuts.

“The focus from Earl on the punt thing is so much because he wants to do so well, but I want to take that away from him,” Carroll said before practice Wednesday. “So he’s going to still be available on punt returns — we will use him when we need him — but we will use Bryan Walters back there and mix our guys as we go.

“I was just noticing in the game (Thomas last week against Green Bay) that he wants to do so well that his focus is challenged. And I’d rather his focus be on safety.

“He’s not doing it.”

Carroll mentioned wide receiver Doug Baldwin may also get some punt-return chances.

The coach added that the fact Thomas fumbled a return in the first quarter against the Packers — when teammate Richard Sherman blocked a man into Thomas — had no bearing on the change.

Carroll said he spoke with Thomas about the decision and that the star understood. It’s a task Thomas did in the first three preseason games and in last week’s opener for the first time since his final season at the University of Texas. That was six years ago.

Thomas returned two punts for three yards amid heavy traffic last week. Walters came on for Green Bay’s final punt late in the Seahawks’ 36-16 win and executed a fair catch — something he didn’t do in the second exhibition last month against San Diego when he ran pell-mell into charging Chargers and badly bruised his ribs.

Carroll said Thomas is fine with the change.

“He sees it. He has such tremendous pride in his position and what he brings to this defense and what it takes to get that focus,” Carroll said. “He sensed it also, so we really just talked it through. It makes sense to him, too.

“He actually had the same thought the night before I talked to him.”

MARCUS BURLEY THE NEW NICKEL

Carroll said for right now the fifth defensive back replacing injured Jeremy Lane at the nickel against San Diego will be Marcus Burley.

The Seahawks traded for the 5-foot-11, 185-pound Burley last month by giving a sixth-round draft choice in 2015, so they may as well use him.

Carroll said Josh Thomas, signed Monday after Carolina waived him, will stay outside as a backup cornerback. There was no mention of moving starting cornerback Byron Maxwell inside to nickel, where he has pinch-hit in the past.

The Seahawks were in nickel alignment on 92 percent of its defensive snaps last week against Aaron Rodgers and Green Bay. That was because the Packers went often to three-, four- and even five-wide receiver sets.

In those, Rodgers never threw once in the direction of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman on the left side of the Seahawks’ defense.

San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers acknowledged Wednesday he knows all that. But he said the Chargers aren’t the Packers.

“If we line up in three tight ends, they’re not going to be in nickel,” Rivers said. “We expect them to be in that if we’re in three receivers … they were most of the time in that that game. We don’t plan on being in that personnel group necessarily the whole game, but we will be some.”

As for Green Bay not throwing at Sherman even once, Rivers — the AFC’s second-highest rated passer behind only Denver’s Peyton Manning — said: “Well, I certainly understand why. He’s a great corner. But at the same time, I think you have to smart. It’s not one of the deals that you want to go after him by any means.

“Our approach is not going to be to completely eliminate and not throw over there any.”

EXTRA POINTS

RB Christine Michael ran Tuesday, took Wednesday off and will try to test his injured hamstring again Thursday. Carroll said Marshawn Lynch’s backup has an outside chance to play in San Diego but a really good shot at playing next week against Denver at CenturyLink Field. … Carroll is starting a program to recognize people who improve the world around them. The coach will select one nominee for each of the Seahawks’ final seven regular-season home games to receive a pair of tickets. “Everyone has something unique to contribute to make this world a better place,” Carroll said. “This season we want to recognize those who make a positive impact in the lives of those around them and also engage new volunteers to help meet the growing needs of our community.” A selection committee will review the nominations a minimum of one week before the game and the coach will announce the recipient on Tuesday prior to each home game on his Twitter account (@PeteCarroll). Nominees must be 18 years or older. Fans can nominate online at goo.gl/pWj8yP.

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