Will the return of free safety Earl Thomas fix all that ailed the Seattle defense down the stretch in 2016?
The Seahawks’ defense was pretty much playing to the same level in 2016 and then perennial Pro Bowl free safety Earl Thomas got hurt and it all fell apart.
That’s the generally accepted conventional wisdom of Seattle’s 2016 season, anyway, one that the coaches and players themselves have readily propagated.
And as the 2017 season nears one of the key questions will be if the return of an apparently healthy Thomas is all that’s needed to fix everything that went wrong the final six games of 2016.
First, as for Thomas’ health, all indications in the spring were that he should be good to go for the season, if possibly eased in a bit as training camp begins.
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Thomas, recall, broke his tibia in a game against Carolina on Dec. 4. It was a scary-looking injury that in the heat of the moment also caused Thomas to send out a few Tweets indicating he was contemplating retirement. Those feelings passed by the time the season was over, though, and while the injury was serious, breaks are also often less complicated than ligament tears.
And by May, Thomas appeared quickly getting back to normal, taking part in almost everything in the team’s offseason program, with coach Pete Carroll proclaiming when it ended he fully expected Thomas to be ready for the season and that he was “well ahead’’ in his recovery of where the team had thought he might be.
Carroll, in fact, said that “I do anticipate’’ that Thomas would “be able’’ to take part in all of training camp, if needed.
“I don’t know that we’ll do that with him,’’ Carroll said. “We’ll make sure to work our way into it. But there’s nothing showing that he can’t. So we’ll just make sure that he’s in really good shape and not pressing early because there’s no reason to. But I can’t imagine he won’t be in great physical condition and mental condition to really take this on.”
So assuming Thomas returns to play at the same level as ever, then will the Seattle defense as well?
Recall that while the Seattle defense had had a couple of little stumbles in the first 12 games of the season most of its stats were not to dissimilar to the glory days of the past when Thomas was hurt during what was a 40-7 win over the Panthers.
The Seahawks had allowed 20 or more points only four times in the first 12 games last season, for instance, and no more than 25, an average of 16.1 points per game that was on pace to be better than the 17.3 of 2015 when Seattle had led the league in fewest points allowed for a fourth straight season.
But without Thomas, Seattle gave up points as it hadn’t in years with two of the final four regular season opponents scoring 34 or more and then Atlanta getting 36 in the season-ending divisional playoff loss.
And opponents did it by throwing deep and down the middle of the field in a way few teams do when Thomas is healthy (for instance, the Seahawks led the NFL in 2016 in yards allowed per rush at 3.4, half-a-yard better than the 2013 Super Bowl champs).
There were any number of statistical breakdowns detailing how the loss of Thomas impacted the Seattle defense.
But to cite a few from NFL analyst Warren Sharp, the Seahawks had the third-best defensive passer rating against deep passes with Thomas but fell to fifth-worst without him.
Put another way, also via Sharp, the Seahawks were allowing a passer rating of just nine (out of a possible 158.3) on passes down the deep middle of the field with Thomas but a rating of 135 without him.
Or to cite Sharp one more time: “Seattle played the seventh-easiest schedule of explosive pass offenses without Thomas yet ranked dead last in (allowing) explosive gains.But with Thomas, even though they played the 10th-hardest schedule of explosive pass offenses, they ranked eighth-best in preventing them.’’
And it’s worth remembering that Thomas was the only defensive regular who was not available down the stretch.
So yeah, losing Thomas was a really big deal (a loss that also may have answered the long-debated question of which member of the Seahawks’ defense has been the most valuable through the years).
And if you consider the nickel as the team’s primary defense (the Seahawks played it roughly 70 percent of the time last season) Seattle can begin the 2017 season with all but one regular starter from 2016 — injured cornerback DeShawn Shead.
So with the gang back together, Thomas included, the hope will be that the Seahawks’ defense will be back to its old self, as well.