49ers: Free safeties to meet their role model in Sea­hawks’ Thomas

The Mercury News - - Sports - By Cam In­man cin­man@ba­yare­anews­group.com

The most talked about free safety among the 49ers de­fense is one that isn’t on the 49ers de­fense: Earl Thomas.

As the 49ers switched their de­fen­sive scheme to a sin­gle-high free safety this sea­son, they have tried to clone Thomas, the Seat­tle Sea­hawks’ four-time All-Pro.

The 49ers’ can­di­dates: Jim­mie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt and Lorenzo Jerome. Each has spent the past six months ob­ses­sively study­ing Thomas’ ten­den­cies.

Ward, ac­tu­ally, has fol­lowed Thomas since the 2010 BCS cham­pi­onship, when Thomas’ Texas team fell to Alabama.

“I know a great player when I see one,” Ward said dur­ing train­ing camp. “(In that BCS ti­tle game) Earl Thomas came up and made a hit. I was like, ‘Whoa, who is this guy? This guy plays fast.’ ”

Ward was moved from cor­ner­back to free safety this spring as the 49ers’ pro­jected ver­sion of Thomas, but a ham­string in­jury has kept him from fully prac­tic­ing since June, and Ward’s avail­abil­ity re­mains in doubt for Sun­day’s game in Seat­tle.

When watch­ing film of Thomas, Ward said: “I’m just look­ing at his breaks. What does he do when the quar­ter­backs

pump? How fast does he get to the ball? How fast does he close space, that’s the most im­por­tant part. And does he take ad­van­tage when he’s right there to make the tackle and at­tack the ball.”

Tartt started at free safety in the 49ers’ base de­fense last Sun­day, and af­ter a cou­ple of er­rors, he made an ac­ro­batic in­ter­cep­tion on the 49ers’ goal line to merit praise.

When watch­ing Thomas, Tartt said: “I’ve pretty much have seen all of his games from 2012 to 2016. His fun­da­men­tal tech­nique is con­sis­tent through the whole game. That’s some­thing you have to main­tain play­ing free safety and he does a great, great job at that.”

Jerome, an un­drafted rookie, made his NFL de­but Sun­day in the 49ers’ dime pack­age, play­ing 12 snaps.

When watch­ing Thomas, Jerome said: “Ev­ery night I prob­a­bly take a peak at what Earl Thomas is do­ing. I learn a tip ev­ery time I watch him. He’s a great player, a phys­i­cal player. His in­stincts are so fast and he knows the play be­fore it hap­pens.

“I just his read steps, the way he reads the quar­ter­back,” Jerome added. “How fast he is in his twitch. The way he’s in and out of breaks. I try to keep watch­ing that and im­i­tate it on the field in prac­tice.”

Thomas, 28, has 23 ca­reer in­ter­cep­tions, sixth most in Sea­hawks his­tory. Com­ing off a bro­ken tibia last De­cem­ber, Thomas had 11 tack­les and one pass de­fense in the Sea­hawks’ 17-9 loss Sun­day at Green Bay.

Coach Kyle Shana­han told KNBR 680 that Thomas “can cover more ground than any­one in the league,” and Shana­han knows, hav­ing op­posed the Sea­hawks twice last sea­son as the At­lanta Fal­cons’ co­or­di­na­tor.

No one’s had a bet­ter view of Thomas than Sea­hawks coach Pete Car­roll, who drafted Thomas in the 2010 first round.

When watch­ing Thomas, Car­roll said: “Earl is the best guy we’ve ever had, and he’s been the most dy­namic as a cover guy and as a hit­ter and a tack­ler. He has such great com­mit­ment in his style to make his breaks when he goes.

“He re­ally trusts and be­lieves what he sees,” Car­roll added. “He jumps off the screen at you. He’s a very im­por­tant player, for sure.”

Thomas has made that well known to the 49ers, and not just this year. When the 49ers-Sea­hawks ri­valry was at its peak, Thomas made a first-quarter in­ter­cep­tion at the Sea­hawks’ 1-yard line to spark a 2013 win in Seat­tle.

As the 49ers try end­ing a six-game los­ing streak there, quar­ter­back Brian Hoyer knows he must thwart Thomas.

“Earl ob­vi­ously com­mands a lot of at­ten­tion,” Hoyer told 95.7 The Game. “My first few years in New Eng­land, it al­ways seemed like we played the Ravens, and that’s when (safety) Ed Reed was there. And I re­mem­ber Tom Brady go­ing over the plays and say­ing, ‘I just got to know where Ed Reed is.’

“That’s how I feel about Earl,” Hoyer added. “You have to know where he is and know he’s go­ing to read your eyes and make plays off it.”

At some point, per­haps an op­po­nent will say the same of the 49ers free safety, who­ever it might be.

“I’ve seen enough of Earl,” Ward said Fri­day. “It’s all about Seat­tle’s of­fense and our game plan now.”

• Cor­ner­back Asa Jackson got pro­moted Satur­day from the 49ers prac­tice squad, re­plac­ing 2014 draft pick Keith Reaser. Jackson (No. 30) is ex­pected to play spe­cial teams and serve as a re­serve nickel back. All 10 of Reaser’s snaps in the opener came on spe­cial teams, and he was one of seven play­ers drafted by for­mer gen­eral man­ager Trent Baalke re­cov­er­ing from an­te­rior cru­ci­ate lig­a­ment tears.

GETTY IMAGES FILE

The 49ers have spent a lot of time study­ing the play of Sea­hawks safety Earl Thomas.

RICK SCUTERI — ASSOCIATED PRESS ARCHIVE

49ers de­fen­sive back Jim­mie Ward has closely fol­lowed the ca­reer of the Sea­hawks’ Earl Thomas, go­ing as far back as Thomas’ col­lege days with Texas.

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