Normally we wait until at least Tuesday before really getting into the nitty gritty of the Green Bay Packers’ upcoming game, but this week is a bit different. On Sunday, they will host the Seattle Seahawks in what has become an annual NFC rivalry game over the past few years, as this will be the fourth game between the two teams in the last three years and fifth in the last five.
If you’re a believer in history repeating itself, the home team has been the victorious side in each of the past five meetings between these teams (or at least that’s the case according to replacement ref Lance Easley and the “official NFL record book”). However, the 6-6 Packers will be facing a tough 8-3-1 Seahawks team who is making another run at a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
One of the most critical factors to the Seahawks’ success over the past few years is the play of their secondary, and although Richard Sherman talks a lot and gets the headlines, safety Earl Thomas is really the glue that holds that unit together. Last night against the Panthers, though, Thomas suffered a broken leg that will knock him out for the rest of the season. The impact of this injury cannot be overstated; Thomas has made five straight Pro Bowls and was named First-Team All-Pro three years straight from 2012-2014.
For a look at how critical Thomas is to Seattle’s defense, look no further than the comments from Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
The counts (defensive players vs. offensive players) that occur at the line of scrimmage...(when) you’re playing with two-deep safeties, just makes it that much harder, and the running game is a gimme (for the offense).
To interpret his point here, having a free safety with the range and intelligence of Thomas is critical to having a good defense. This is because having a special player at that position allows the defense to cover the deep middle of the field while keeping an 8th man (in the Seahawks’ case, strong safety Kam Chancellor) near the box on nearly every play in an effort to stop the run.
How good has Thomas been in this role? Friend of APC Danny Kelly (formerly of SB Nation’s Field Gulls and now working for The Ringer) looked up the stats for this year:
The fact that Seattle is so good vs. deep middle when they play almost exclusively single-high stuff is a testament to Earl's range, talent— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) December 5, 2016
Earl Thomas factor: Seahawks more than twice as good vs. deep middle passes than any other team in NFL, per DVOA (higher negative # is good) https://t.co/uaRxworlOx— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) December 5, 2016
Per NFLGSIS stats, Seahawks have given up just *four* deep middle passes (on 17 attempts). FOUR. In 12 games.— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) December 5, 2016
The question now becomes whether the Green Bay Packers can exploit Thomas’ absence and attack the deep middle of the field. If they try, the player they will be working on will be third-year safety Steven Terrell, who joined the Seahawks in 2014 as a free agent. Terrell, who played his college ball at Texas A&M, was signed by Jacksonville as an undrafted rookie in 2013, then bounced around the on the Jaguars’ and Texans’ practice squads before landing in Seattle before the Seahawks’ 2014 training camp.
So how does he compare to Thomas? Physically, the two players are very similar. Thomas measured in at 5’ 10-1/4” and 208 pounds at the 2010 NFL Scouting Combine. Terrell was not invited to the 2014 Combine, but measured 5’ 10-3/8” and 197 at A&M’s Pro Day. Thomas ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at the Combine but dropped his time to 4.37 at his Pro Day, while Terrell ran a 4.34. Terrell might even be more physically explosive than Thomas; while Thomas has no shuttle or cone drill results on file, he recorded a vertical of 32” and a broad jump of 9’5” - both of those are well behind Terrell’s Pro Day numbers, where he had a 38.5” vert and 10’10” broad jump. Terrell added a blistering 6.84-second cone drill time and a solid-if-unspectacular 4.22 in the shuttle. All of those results make his signing by the Seahawks unsurprising; after all, Seattle is an organization that prioritizes elite athleticism in their prospects, and Terrell fits the bill.
Of course, there is no substitute for experience, something Thomas had in spades. Terrell started for parts of three seasons at A&M, however, playing for both former Packers head coach Mike Sherman and current Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin.
Let’s go to those who know him best, however. Kenneth Arthur of Field Gulls gives us these thoughts on Terrell:
He's not a rookie, he's not in his first season with Pete Carroll and (DC) Kris Richard, he's as prepared for this as anyone backing up Thomas could be. And he might actually be faster than Thomas. He may not bring that type of football intelligence that Thomas has (not many could) but he's prepared and he's got Earl giving him guidance and advice throughout this time. We can only find out what type of player he actually is over the next four weeks and playoffs, but so far so good. He seems to be holding his own even if he's not the linchpin that Thomas is.
I would expect the Packers to challenge Terrell early with Jared Cook or Jordy Nelson down the middle of the field. The question will be whether Terrell is up to the challenge, because it is difficult to imagine Pete Carroll changing his coverage scheme entirely even without Thomas for the rest of the year. Whether or not Aaron Rodgers can have success attacking that part of the field should be one of the biggest determining factors in which team emerges with a victory on Sunday afternoon.