There are several X-factors in Super Bowl XLVIII, and then there’s a J-factor: Julius Thomas. How do you stop him? He’s 6’5″, weighs 250 pounds, and he’s quick and explosive. He can line up in-line like a traditional tight end or like a modern flex/slot. He may not seem like any different of a problem to the Seattle Seahawks than some of the recent tight ends they’ve faced, including Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis the last two weeks, but he is. He won’t soften like Graham did or be underused like Davis was. He’ll battle the defense until the game’s end, and he’ll get plenty of chances to beat them too.
Through two playoff games, Thomas has seen 18 Peyton Manning passes come in his direction, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s caught nearly 80 percent of them for more than 150 yards. They’ve come from all over the field; left flat, deep seam, right sideline — he’s everywhere. He’s gotten to his spots by outmuscling small safeties, and out-quickening large linebackers. The Seahawks have big safeties and large linebackers who are equally athletic, but they still have to figure out how they will assign defenders.
When Thomas is split from the line, can they risk lining Richard Sherman over him and leaving the other corners to fend off the Broncos’ trio of star receivers (Demaryius Thomas, Eric Decker, and Wes Welker). Or will they walk out linebacker Bobby Wagner or K.J. Wright to Thomas and defend him that way? If those are their options in man, what are they in zone? Thomas can beat them there too?
The Broncos were leading by a touchdown in their Divisional bout against the San Diego Chargers when Thomas lined up away from the line on an obvious 3rd-and-17 passing down. The offense needed to extend the marker if they were going to keep Philip Rivers helplessly on the bench, and Thomas was going to be the guy to do it for them.
Three yards from the line, Thomas was flexed out with no defender over him. The closest was a safety 15 yards away. The Chargers were lined up in a two-deep shell, misleadingly hinting at even coverage. It was really going to be Cover 3 (four under, three deep zone), a concept that the Seahawks will play a lot in the Super Bowl, and this meant they had to pass receivers off and cover Thomas. But as the play began, it didn’t go as planned . . .
Thomas stemmed six yards vertically and the safety that was once over him rotated away to the middle of the field. At the 26 he stuck his right foot in the ground and turned right, running what looked to be a “sail” route. As he crossed the 30, he looked over his left shoulder and realized no one covered him. The cornerback to that side, who was originally in a deep-third zone, was still glued to the receiver when he should have passed him off to the newly rotated middle of the field safety and came down to cover Thomas, who turned upfield and ran down the sideline before contorting his body and hauling in the pass like the former basketball player that he is.
Passing off the receiver and coming down to Thomas is clearly what the Chargers failed to do, but the Seahawks are less prone to that mistake. They’re very adept at handling pass-catchers in zone coverage, and they do an exceptional job of reading the play as it unfolds. In a similar situation against the Saints and Jimmy Graham two weeks ago, Seahawks cornerback Byron Maxwell forced a broken link between Graham, who was running a similar route, and the quarterback.
When the Seahawks are forced to man-cover, they’ll have interesting decisions to make. They have the means to slow Thomas from making a significant impact, but will it be with a linebacker or safety or cornerback?
Wright is the best of the athletes at linebacker and has risen to the occasion in the past when forced to cover difficult tight ends, but he’s still recovering from a foot injury and only played 16 snaps last week against the 49ers, according to Pro Football Focus. Safety Kam Chancellor could potentially line up with Thomas when the tight end runs the seam, but he’s slower and less explosive than Thomas is, so that’s unlikely. The best option may be Sherman, but who will then cover Demaryius Thomas? They must choose wisely.
The Patriots thought they did when rookie linebacker Jamie Collins was summoned. Collins is two inches shorter than Thomas at 6’3″, but also weighs 250 pounds, and is very athletic. He still didn’t have enough quickness and experience to match Thomas when isolated in the defense’s Cover 1 (Man-Free) coverage, however.
With more than nine minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Broncos led 23-10 while stationed at their own 25. It was 2nd-and-10 and Thomas was split far to Manning’s left in between the numbers and the championship round logo. Across from him in press coverage with his hands resting on his thighs was Collins. Unlike the Chargers, there was no disguise — it was going to be straight man coverage.
Thomas took one step to his right, opening his right hip and shoulder to the middle of the field, and Collins slid over what seemed like six inches. It was small, but the problem was now big. He was falling behind at the line, and an attempt to disturb Thomas’ subsequent outside release with a long right jab fell short. Thomas exploded off his left foot and to the outside, running in line with the aforementioned championship logo with room in between him and the sideline. More than 15 yards later, he caught Manning’s deep throw as Collins trailed for a 37-yard gain.
No matter what method is chosen to cover Thomas, it may well be the wrong one. Whether it’s zone coverage where defensive backs are required to carry and release receivers to cover Thomas, or linebackers locking up in man coverage in hopes of having enough quickness and athleticism and physicality to handle Thomas, they’ll have their hands full in a tough matchup. It’ll also be a vital one for the Seahawks, who must handle the J-factor.