All-22: The Challenges Against Seattle
Go around the Eagles locker room and ask players what makes Earl Thomas so good, and you’ll get a variety of answers.
“He’s a freak,” said Jordan Matthews. “You can tell he has a desire to be the greatest in the game. No different than my lockermate, 27 [Malcolm Jenkins]. I feel like both of those guys have that same mentality. The dude is full speed every single play the entire game. You’ve gotta be able to match that intensity and go out there and play your hardest if you’re gonna compete against him.”
“His speed,” answered Mark Sanchez. “He’s just got a nose for the football. He diagnoses plays fast. One of the most intense players. The film doesn’t have any sound, but that guy almost puts a soundtrack to the film. You see him just completely sell out – against the run, against the pass, breaking plays up.”
And Jeremy Maclin: “His range. He plays sideline to sideline. He can come downhill, can hit. Not as big as some of the safeties in this league, but he’s smart. Probably him and Jenkins, in my opinion, are the two best safeties in the league.”
The Eagles have had extra time to watch film coming off of their Thanksgiving Day victory over the Cowboys. And one of the guys who has stood out during those sessions is No. 29. Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowler, is someone the Eagles must account for – both in the run game and the pass game.
Here’s an example from Week 10 against the Giants. The Seahawks are primarily a single-high team, and Thomas covers a lot of ground in center field:
“He’s an extremely active player,” said Chip Kelly. “He’s an extremely physical player. You can tell on tape he’s an intelligent football player. It’s really difficult for people to fool him. People try to look him off, but he always seems to be going in the right spot. I said it the other day, I think he’s one of the top safeties in the league right now.”
Thomas can fly up and make plays against the run too. Here he is in a two-deep look in that same game against the Giants.
“The first thing you see is his speed because he can line up high and you don’t think he’s going to be involved, and all of a sudden he’s on the line of scrimmage making the tackle,” said Kelly.
The Eagles’ run game is based on numbers in the box. But Thomas can mess with the count. How do they account for that?
“You can’t,” said center Jason Kelce. “When he’s responsible for the middle of the field and he’s coming down making a play on the run, they’re gonna be plus a hat. But I think that’s kind of the mentality the whole defense plays with. They all play extremely hard and run to the football.”
In coverage, the Seahawks play a lot of Cover 3. That’s a three-deep zone with four underneath defenders.
Every coverage has strengths and weaknesses. Cover 3 allows defenses to get an extra player in the box. For the Seahawks, that’s usually safety Kam Chancellor.
The seams and underneath stuff are generally open against Cover 3, but that’s not always the case against Seattle.
“Usually it’s the seams, but Earl Thomas is a heck of an athlete back there,” said Zach Ertz. “He’s very rangy. He can cover both seams, so that’s something that we have to be ready for with him because he is so athletic. And then the corner can play back into the seam areas as well. So I think if the ball’s in there, we’ve just gotta make a play.”
Added Chris Maragos: “You’ve got Earl Thomas back there. The guy’s got range that’s unbelievable. He just makes up for a lot of things and can do a lot of things. And what Kam Chancellor does, how smart he is, how physical, just the way that he sets the tempo for their defense, obviously they do a good job.”
The Seahawks have a lot of team speed. They match up with receivers in their zones and close on the football very quickly.
Here, you see Chancellor and linebacker Bobby Wagner close quickly and limit yards after catch.
Up front, the Seahawks haven’t racked up a lot of sacks (27th in adjusted sack rate). But they have some players capable of getting after the passer. Michael Bennett has five sacks. Cliff Avril and Bruce Irvin have 4.5 apiece.
One thing they like to do is line up Avril and Bennett out wide together in passing situations.
“They try to get space between the guard, run a lot of games with Bennett,” said Lane Johnson. “They try to get the tackle to kind of turn his hips so they can bull-rush into him. It’s gonna be a challenge, but they do like to run stunts out of it. So basically me and [Andrew] Gardner are gonna have to be on the same set lines.”
The Seahawks keep offensive linemen off-balance with this look. As Johnson mentioned, oftentimes they run stunts with Avril and Bennett. But on other occasions, Bennett attacks the right guard, and Avril gets a one-on-one against the right tackle. That’s what happened on this play against the 49ers.
“We like those guys together,” Pete Carroll told reporters this week. “Trying to get them the chemistry of working together so that they can take advantage of what they see and feel and respond and feed off of one another. We’ve been working at keeping those guys adjacent a lot, not all the time, but enough to try to take advantage of that. There comes a time when they’ll both see things exactly the same and they’ll respond exactly the way you want ‘em to and take advantage of the rush. Michael’s such a wild hare up there. He’s all over the place with his rushes that it’s hard to corral him sometimes. But the idea is to keep them so they do create a chemistry.”
The Seahawks’ defense is sixth in DVOA. They present problems at every level. And because Seattle has had a lot of the same guys playing the same coverages over the past two years, they are able to limit openings for opposing quarterbacks.
When Seattle goes to man coverage, look for Ertz and Darren Sproles to be factors. The Seahawks are 20th against tight ends and 21st at covering running backs, according to Football Outsiders.
Kelly has come up with plenty of answers in the past two seasons, and both teams have had extra time to prepare. The Eagles’ offense has played well the past two weeks and appears to be finding some consistency, but Sunday presents the toughest challenge of the season.
“They’ve got players at every single position on the defensive side of the ball,” Kelly said. “There’s a reason they won the Super Bowl last year and there’s a reason they held the last two teams they played to three points. They’ve got a lot of really talented players over there.”