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49ers-Seahawks preview: What makes Earl Thomas so important to their defense?

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The 49ers are trying to implement a Seahawks-style defense. We might as well understand what makes it tick!

NFL: Seattle Seahawks at Green Bay Packers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

The San Francisco 49ers head into Seattle this week in the early stages of a rebuilding process on both sides of the ball. The 49ers offense vs. the Seahawks defense will provide plenty of challenges, but it also provides a chance to see how the 49ers new-look defense measures up against its philosophical relative.

Head coach Kyle Shanahan and defensive coordinator Robert Saleh have talked about the inspiration derived from the Seahawks defense. They make it clear it will be a 49ers version of it, but philosophically it comes from the Seahawks (and Monte Kiffin before that).

Arguably the most important position in the 49ers new defense will be the free safety. Robert Saleh has referred to the free safety as the eraser on defense. He’s the guy who is there to clean up any messes, whether it be a wide receiver running free, or a running back breaking into the second level. Jimmie Ward is the guy who was supposed to take over that role, but his hamstring injury has resulted in Jaquiski Tartt and Lorenzo Jerome handling the duties.

The 49ers are looking to find someone who can fill the role Earl Thomas has filled in Seattle. The Seahawks have a lot of talented players on their defense, but Thomas is the most important. We saw this when he got hurt last year, as the Seahawks defense took a decided turn south without him on the field.

I chatted with Kenneth Arthur from Field Gulls this week, and we’ve discussed the Seahawks running backs and offensive line. I also answered five of his questions, which you can read over at Field Gulls. We chatted about the Seahawks defensive leader, and I asked Kenneth what makes him so important. Here’s what he had to say.

I am not an Xs and Os expert (an XsOspert? I'm workshopping that nickname) so I can't really get into schemes and coverages and all that. Instead, I'll turn it over to some other people who have a lot more knowledge on the situation or direct quotes from Thomas and his teammates, coaches:

Sherman might be the most vocal member of Seattle's secondary, but Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowler, is its soul.

"We want him to own the middle of the field," Seahawks defensive backs coach Kris Richard said. "Any deep ball that goes up, we think 'Earl, let's go.' Anybody breaks through the front line of our defense, we think, 'Earl, get him down.' We have to be strong up the middle so in a lot of ways, he's our savior back there."

And here:

"He's a physical football player," Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He plays downhill. He attacks the football. And he's very smart. He really understands the game."

The Seahawks use Thomas in the deep middle of a scheme that rotates mainly between a three-deep zone and man coverage. His main responsibilities are to recognize which receivers can challenge that area and which cornerbacks need help on the outside.

And from Kam Chancellor:

"The safeties here are taught to take two things away -- the seam and the post routes," Chancellor said. "And Earl knows where the seam and post threats are. He has such a feel for the game that he can look at two receivers and know who is going to run the deep route."

And former Texas head coach Mack Brown:

"Earl was so good that he could leave his responsibilities and go after the football simply because he instinctively knew what the quarterback was trying to do," said former Texas coach and current ESPN analyst Mack Brown. "By the third game of his first season, we knew he wasn't going to just be good. He was going to be great."

So some of the takeaways there is that Thomas has elite instincts, an ability to read quarterbacks and plays in a way that so few players in the NFL can do. Then you combine that with the fact that Thomas is also one of the quickest players in the NFL, meaning that not only can he read a play before most safeties/DBs/linebackers can, but he can get to the spot on the field that he needs to be in faster than most professional football players can do. His 4.43 40-yard dash is fast, but on the field he looks like a 4.2 guy. The other "unusual" thing about him is that despite his size (5'10, 202) he hits like a train. He's not Kam in that regard, but he's a speeding bullet that won't back down to anyone, even ending Rob Gronkowski's season last year with a vicious hit. Gronkowski weighs at least 60 lbs more than Thomas and is eight inches taller.

The fact that Thomas is so good also makes it easier on Chancellor, Pro Bowl corner Richard Sherman, All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner, and Pro Bowl outside linebacker K.J. Wright, because they know that Thomas is manning such a large percentage of the middle on his own; not that he can't attack the sidelines too and make plays there. It's a symbiotic relationship and they all help each other, but Thomas is truly the glue, not just physically, but mentally. I think Sherman's swagger is allowed to shine even brighter because Sherman knows that he has a Hall of Famer standing somewhere behind him. I think Sherman is also on a Hall of Fame path, with or without Thomas, but they do make each other even better by being a unit. When the defense went from the best free safety in the world to Steven Terrell, who was a free agent up until a week ago when the Chiefs signed him following the injury to Eric Berry, it was far too deep of a drop. Terrell might not even be in the top 50 safeties in the NFL. The deep middle was open territory again and opposing QBs thrived when going after this weakness, like a video game final boss losing his force field, or whatever. I don't play a ton of video games anymore but I think that's a correct analogy.

Elite IQ, Elite Speed, Off-the-Charts Confidence, Silent Leadership, Unmatched Motivation to be the Best. I'm not an Xs and Os guy, but after eight years of seeing how he affects the defense, you don't need to know all the schemes to see what makes Earl so special. Every Sunday with him on the field gives me 100% confidence as a fan that the defense won't crap the bed. That's how effective he's been since 2010/2011.