Earl Thomas and Troy Polamalu have some things in common.
They both come from small towns, but went on to star at major college football powers – Thomas at the University of Texas and Polamalu at USC.
One is from Orange, Texas – population 19,616 in East Texas.
The other is from Tenmile, Ore. – population 9,469, about 200 miles southwest of Portland along the Oregon coast.
They are both about the same size. Thomas is a sleek 5-10, 200 pounds, while Polamalu is more powerfully put together at 5-11, 215 pounds. And both have a quiet intensity that ratchets up on game days.
Polamalu already is one of the best safeties in the league and likely headed to the Hall of Fame. At 30 years old, he’s a six-time Pro Bowler with two Super Bowl rings and 27 career interceptions.
Thomas, 22 and in his second season, hopes to follow a similar path. He finished five interceptions in his rookie season and was a Pro Bowl alternate.
“Both are very gifted,” said Seattle strength and conditioning coach Chris Carlisle, who worked closely with Polamalu when serving in the same capacity for Pete Carroll at USC. Carlisle said Polamalu was one of the strongest players he’s ever coached. “And both are very religious young men. And so their spiritual life, they have that in line. Also, their both quiet, even though when they get in games the competition brings their intensity out.
“And then they have the hair. They both have unique hair. And so there’s something there.”
Carroll points to Polamalu as perfect example of the player Thomas can become.
“What Troy is so famous for is just these knifing, rocketing drives to make a tackle or to make a play on the football and the willingness to take a chance and go for it,” Carroll said. “Both these guys are like that. If Earl could be so lucky somewhere down the road, six or eight years from now… You look at them and say there are a lot of similarities in what they’re able to produce. I see a lot alike. … One guy’s just proven it over a long period of time and he’s a great player. Earl, he’s emerging. We really want to do similar things (with Thomas) like we did with Troy back in college because of their nature and the style of play that they offer you.”
Growing up as a running back playing high school football in Texas, Thomas looked up to another NFL player – Dallas Cowboys Hall of Fame running back Emmitt Smith.
But after a year in the league, Thomas is more intently focused on the elite players at his position – so much so that before the lockout he had the Seahawks send him film cut-ups of players like Polamalu and Ed Reed so he could study their play during the offseason.
“I got a chance to just break those guys down and see how they think in a game,” Thomas said about his film study. “Just see their drops in the middle third, and especially keying the quarterback and stuff like that.
“Polamalu, he’s a great player. He’s been in the league a long time, and he’s been doing it well. What separates him and Ed Reed from a lot of people is they know what’s coming before the play even starts. I feel like they always have a tackling plan in blitz situations, or any kind of situation.”
And in the first week of the regular season you could see a change in Thomas’ approach, specifically in a big hit against much bigger San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis for a loss. Thomas appeared controlled and more decisive in his approach to tackling ball carriers at the line of scrimmage.
Pittsburgh head coach Mike Tomlin said that players like Polamalu and Thomas appear to be moving at a different speed than the rest of the players on the field.
“His initial quickness, his movement to plays, his instincts – it’s unique,” Tomlin said about Thomas. “I think you could maybe compare them along those lines. Maybe amount of grass that he’s capable of covering and how decisive he is when he makes a decision about going after something is very impressive.”
Tomlin went on to say that Polamalu’s time in the league shows the evolution of the safety position from just an in-the-box defender to a more versatile player who has to cover quick receivers and play in space.
“The day of the box safety is dead,” he said. “I think they have to be multi-faceted, multi-talented people. They’ve got to be able to play in the box and be intricate parts of the run game.
“They’ve also got to be able to play on the back end and play against receivers. I just think that’s the evolution of today’s football. Troy, of course, has been the appropriate athlete at that time, but I think it’s more about what offenses do, as opposed to about the physical characteristics of the men themselves.”
Seahawks receiver Mike Williams, who played with Polamalu at USC, says the two safeties are different in their personality and their play.
“They are just totally different guys,” he said. “You’re never going to here a word out of Troy on the field. You’re just not. It doesn’t matter if some guy gets up after catching the ball and he wants to talk a bunch of smack, does a dance or whatever. Troy, he’s so wired in all the time. Earl’s a little more outgoing, and a little more outspoken.
“As far as playing ball, they’re both ball hawks and go after the ball. I think over time the more Earl plays obviously, he’ll come into his own. But Troy, he’s a different kind of guy – a one-of-a-kind type of guy. There won’t be a Troy in my eyes to come along for quite some time.”