Earl Thomas might be the best single-high deep safety in NFL history. Part of why the Legion of Boom era was able to thrive for so long in Seattle was the ability to leave Thomas on his own deep in the secondary and not worry about deep passes even being attempted. With Thomas on the field, teams stayed away from testing him and it was a stark difference from how opponents attacked the Seahawks without Thomas.
When Thomas signed a deal with the Baltimore Ravens as a free agent this past offseason, the belief was the Ravens would just have Earl Thomas do Earl Thomas things — stand by himself in the deep middle and dissuade opponents from deep passes. While that has happened and the Ravens have improved on the backend of the secondary, Baltimore and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale has been able to use Thomas successfully in a more versatile role.
Thomas Coverage Effect
Baltimore had the benefit of allowing Thomas to do his thing as the single-high safety. Thomas still has the range and anticipation to cover from sideline to sideline and break on deep routes to force incompletions, even if he’s not making a physical play on the ball.
Below is a play of Thomas causing an incompletion in the end zone against his former team in Week 7. Almost everything Thomas can add to a defense is shown in this play. Thomas is the single-high deep safety. At the snap, he kept his depth and moved to his right to follow a potential swing pass to Tyler Lockett off a lot of pre-snap motion. When Thomas confirmed that pass wasn’t an option, he turned to break on the deep pass. By that time, the wide receiver was a few yards behind him, but Thomas had a straight-line path to cut off the post and close the window for a potential completion.
Despite having Thomas on the roster, the Ravens have used traditional single-high looks (Cover 1 or 3) on a lower rate of opposing pass attempts than they did in 2018, per Sports Info Solutions charting. Those snaps were much more effective, though, even as the yards per attempt on those passes increased slightly.
Ravens Cover 1/3, 2018-2019
|Year||% of Attempts||Comp%||YPA||TD/INT||EPA/Att||Postive Play%|
The huge swing in Expected Points Added despite a smaller drop in positive play rate (the percentage of plays for the offense that result in positive EPA) can be attributed somewhat to the increase in turnovers. Thomas didn’t single-handedly shift that number with only two picks on the year, but his presence in the middle of the field allowed the other Ravens in the secondary to play more aggressive coverage. That’s been to the benefit of players like Marcus Peters, Marlon Humphrey, and Jimmy Smith, who also make up one of the deepest groups of quality cornerbacks in the league.
All of that helped the Ravens on deep passes, who went from 19th in DVOA against such attempts in 2018 to 10th in 2019, per Football Outsiders.
There’s also been a benefit to the Ravens not always relying on Thomas as the single-high safety. That has allowed Baltimore to disguise and adjust some coverages pre-snap. Against the New England Patriots in Week 9, Tom Brady saw Baltimore’s defensive look and changed out of the play. The Ravens moved to a two-high look and rushed just three. Thomas was able to drop back, read the field, and follow Mohamed Sanu down the field.
A New Role
Those different looks have been good for coverage but they’ve been better for the pass rush. The Ravens have been the most blitz-heavy team in the NFL this season. That isn’t just about sending an extra linebacker on a few plays. Thomas has been heavily involved in that pass rush as a blitzer.
Per SIS charting, Thomas had 38 pass rush snaps this season, which averages over two per game, and accounted for just over 7% of his pass snaps. Thomas had four pass rush snaps in his final year with the Seahawks in 2018 and no pass rushes in 2016 or 2017. Thomas had six quarterback hits this season, which were more than he had in his career combined.
In 2019, Thomas was one of 14 safeties with at least 32 pass rush snaps (a two per game average) and he led that group in pressure rate at 31.6%.
If you’d like to add in corners who blitzed that often, there were six who rushed at least twice per game on average and Thomas still comes out on top in pressure rate. He’s actually one of the most effective blitzing defensive backs by pressure rate over the past four seasons. Among 65 defensive backs with at least 32 pass rushes in a season since 2016, Thomas has the third-highest pressure rate behind two 2017 seasons — Daniel Sorensen (38.5%) and Tyrann Mathieu (35.6%), who are now teammates on the Kansas City Chiefs.
Much of that pressure comes because opposing offenses still aren’t expecting Thomas to running toward the quarterback, even has his blitz rate has increased this season.
Against the Patriots in that Week 9 game, Thomas lined up outside defensive end Jaylon Ferguson (45) on a 3rd and 10. The Ravens used an overload blitz to Thomas’s side of the field. He rushed in behind Ferguson against the tackle and running back James White committed to a blitzing Chuck Clark on the same side, which left a free lane for Thomas to chase Brady out of the pocket and force an incompletion.
In Week 14 against the Buffalo Bills, Thomas started a 1st and 10 snap in the third quarter in the middle of the field and wandered toward the line of scrimmage across from Cole Beasley. At the snap, tight end Dawson Knox (88) helped to chip inside on Ferguson without realizing Thomas would be rushing on the play. By the time Knox recognized the blitz, it was too and late Thomas was already untouched around the corner for a blindside strip-sack of Josh Allen.
Thomas is just a small part of the Baltimore blitzing scheme but being a part of it at all is a massive change from the role Thomas had played at any other point in his career. The fact he’s been a good blitzer is an added bonus for the Ravens and just highlights one of the many ways this team can throw something unexpected at an opponent.
The Ravens have been fueled by players who can adapt and do a number of things well on the field and Thomas’s deployment this season has been one of the best and most effective examples.