In Seattle’s notorious Legion of Boom, Richard Sherman is the most famous member and Kam Chancellor the most feared. However, free safety Earl Thomas is the most important piece of the puzzle.
Quantifying the contributions of defensive players is not always easy. Sometimes there are no stats to describe what they do. In Sherman’s case the biggest help he provides is by shutting down the left side of the field. Every time a quarterback chooses not to throw that way won’t show up in the box score, but it has an enormous impact on the game because it limits their options so severely.
We face the same problem in tallying up ET’s value to the defense, only it’s even harder. While Sherman covers the left side of the field, Thomas is responsible for covering pretty much every single inch. Quarterbacks can’t say I’m just not going to throw near Earl Thomas because he’s like an underground James Bond villain organization: he’s everywhere at once.
That may sound like hyperbole but it’s really not. Thomas has a unique skill set that allows him to be a part of virtually every single play. Back in November Football Outsiders did an article on Thomas with several charts to demonstrate just how much turf he covers:
“Thomas spends a huge amount of time playing in space and that the Seahawks trust him to cover a huge amount of ground while they are incredibly aggressive with the rest of their defense. While most free safeties are there to clean up any mistakes from players in front of them, Thomas literally covers for every defender in front of him on most plays…”
Here’s a couple screenshots from the piece for a visual aid:
That giant blue swath of field may look familiar to devotees of EA Sports’ Madden series. In the 2006 version of the greatest video game ever created, when players were controlling a quarterback they saw a graphic of a sort of vision cone. This represented the area that the quarterback was capable of throwing too. Here’s what Donovan McNabb’s looked like:
That cone is pretty accurate. Both the real life and the Madden Mcnabb had great arms and could reliably throw to most areas of the field. Now take a look at Peyton Manning’s vision cone:
Notice the difference? Manning could hit any receiver within 40 yards at any time on the field no matter what direction he was facing. This was only a sight exaggeration of what he could do in his NFL prime. Madden phased out the vision cone from future versions, but if it were to be re-implemented today Manning’s cone would not look terribly different. Also, if you have no idea what I’m talking about and have never played Madden what’s wrong with you? Go out and buy it now … unless you’re an addictive personality. Then do not buy Madden and do not go near anyone who owns it because it will wreck your life faster than meth.
On Sunday when you see the Broncos offense lining up against the Seahawks defense, picture a giant highlighted area of the field extending 30 to 40 yards in all directions: that represents where Manning can throw. You likely won’t see Thomas in the picture prior to the snap because he plays so deep, but in your mind’s eye try to picture another giant vision cone extending from wherever ET is standing all the way up to where Manning is behind center. The two will definitely overlap and the end result would look something like a venn diagram.
What happens in that area in the middle where they overlap will be vital for the eventual Super bowl winner. Manning may be the smartest quarterback in the game but he’s facing a free safety with an almost extraterrestrial intelligence who can build up a head of steam and bring down players twice his size. Thomas just does not make mistakes. After watching every game this season I can only remember one bad angle that Thomas took for a tackle: it came on Frank Gore’s 51 yard run in the second 49ers game. He may have had more but that’s all I can recall. One bad angle the entire season redefines defensive efficiency.
Sunday might come down to what Manning sees versus what Thomas sees, and the adjustments both of them make after the ball is snapped. There are a lot of intriguing elements and matchups in the Super bowl, but this epic battle of vision cones could very well be the one that decides the final score.
Watch comedian Jon Stewart skewer the media’s coverage of Richard Sherman.