49ers: Free safeties to meet their role model in Seahawks’ Thomas
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.
The 49ers have spent a lot of time studying the play of Seahawks safety Earl Thomas.
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.