Despite Earl Thomas' season-ending injury in September, the young Seahawks safeties haven't crumbled. Bradley McDougald's leadership has a lot to do with that.
Earl Thomas’ locker looks completely undisturbed.
There’s a pile of gloves strewn on the seat and shirts hung up on hangers. His helmet and two hats are hanging on hooks, and shoulder pads are resting on the top shelf, ready for Thursday’s practice. A collage of photos are pasted across the walls and wooden cabinets. Next to his name, a series of stickers showcase the Seahawks’ recent playoff appearances.
If you didn’t know better, it’d look like the Seahawks safety might show up at any moment. But in the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, this is about the only evidence that Earl ever existed.
In every other conceivable way, the Seahawks have moved on.
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That also goes for the safeties.
“Before Earl was here we had OTAs and we started gelling then,” said sixth-year safety Bradley McDougald, when asked if Thomas’ season-ending broken leg on Sept. 30 affected his communication or leadership. “The process started then. We started coming together then. We had to become a brotherhood then, a real tight cohesive unit then. So it started there.
“It was a friendship before it was leadership. I think that’s what this is all based off of.”
That isn’t to say that Thomas’ absence has gone totally unnoticed on the field. The 29-year-old safety nabbed three interceptions in his four games this season. That total still tops the team, tied with McDougald (who has played in nine more games).
In all, the Seahawks rank 16th in the NFL in opponent passer rating (93.9), 17th in passing defense (246.7 yards per game) and 20th in passes allowed of 20 yards or more (46).
But, more importantly, the Seahawks are 6-3 since Thomas’ season-ending injury.
Basically, one loss hasn’t led to a bunch of others.
“The guys that we have, have really stepped up,” said first-year Seahawks defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr, referring to the entire secondary. “Tedric (Thompson) has stepped up. (Bradley) McDougald has stepped up. (Shaquill Griffin) has really been solid.
“Just watching them play like they have, it’s fun to see. This time of year, they aren’t young anymore. They’ve seen it all. Now it’s time to put it all together and push for the finish.”
That will mean stepping up on Sunday against a San Francisco offense that blasted Seattle for 414 passing yards and two touchdowns less than two weeks ago.
It will also mean getting even more improvement — and maybe a timely turnover? — from second-year free safety Tedric Thompson.
“Tedric has played really solid football for us,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said this week. “He’s been a really good hitter and he’s had his plays during the year. What hasn’t happened is the big plays turning the ball over, that he will do in time.
“He’s going to steal the football probably before this season is over. He’s really good back there.”
At times, a Thomas-less Seahawks secondary has showcased not just quality, but quantity. Carroll and Norton employed their “bandit” formation — in which Seattle utilizes seven defensive backs on the same play — three times in a 21-17 win over Minnesota on Monday night. They showed six defensive backs on eight more plays.
Those wrinkles reflect a growing trust in the Seahawks’ safety depth. McDougald has certainly earned that trust, putting together a potentially All-Pro season that includes 68 tackles, three interceptions, two forced fumbles and nine passes defended. Thompson has added 52 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble in 13 games. The Seahawks have also received contributions from second-year strong safety Delano Hill (15 tackles).
Put it all together, and what do you get?
Zero career Pro Bowls. Zero career playoff appearances.
But plenty of reason for optimism.
“The group has played pretty well,” Carroll said. “We’re really happy about Delano (Hill) getting in there and playing. He’s a really good athlete. We thought he was the best tackler in the draft when he came out. He’s been a guy that we’ve been able to move around now and we’re comfortable with him playing in situations, and if he had to play regularly, he would do fine.
“It’s a good group and there’s some competition in the play-time there, which is always good too.”
Through it all, Thomas’ presence hasn’t been felt. McDougald said on Thursday that it’s “never been Earl’s style” to go out of his way to mentor others.
Instead, McDougald has provided the leadership — whether he’d like to admit it or not.
“I never jumped up and said, ‘I’m the guy. Listen to me.’ When we’re on the field and we communicate, I’ve just been in (those) situations,” McDougald said. “I’ve been burned before. I’ve been in the fire. So if it’s any situation that I’ve been in that they haven’t, I just try to give them a heads up.
“That’s the only thing I do for these guys. Besides that, they deserve more credit. They’re true pros and they handle their business like they’re supposed to.”
So, just like McDougald said, the Seahawks safeties will continue to handle their business. They’ll grow together, learn together, make mistakes and plays together. Friendship will come and leadership will follow.
Thomas’ shoulder pads and helmet will stay in his lonely locker, literally gathering dust.
“We know we don’t know it all,” McDougald said. “I haven’t been to the playoffs. These guys haven’t been to the playoffs. So we’re still willing to learn, but at the same time these guys are gritty. That’s why I like playing with them.
“No matter what situation, whether we’re winning or we’re down, I know that we’re going to fight.”