NEW YORK — Hard-hitting, ball-hawking safeties are a Super Bowl staple.
Baltimore’s Ed Reed. Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu. New England’s Rodney Harrison. And this year, Seattle’s Earl Thomas.
While cornerback Richard Sherman makes the headlines, Thomas makes the hits in the Seahawks secondary that will face Denver’s Peyton Manning and the Broncos’ deep and talented corps of receivers in Super Bowl XLVIII next Sunday.
In 2013, Thomas became the first NFL player in a decade to record at least 100 tackles, five interceptions and two forced fumbles in a season.
“You have to have a playmaker’s mentality,” Thomas said of a Seattle defense that led the NFL in takeaways, interceptions and pass defense. “You have to be able to catch. You have to have a certain confidence about yourself. Not cockiness, but confidence, and I think that’s what we all bring to the table.”
Thomas, the Seahawks’ first-round pick from Texas in 2010, is a three-time Pro Bowler who has 15 career interceptions. Like his fellow Seattle defensive backs known as the Legion of Boom, he brings an attitude that borders on belligerence.
“We can bully whoever we want to bully,” said Thomas, whose 100 tackles ranked second on the team to linebacker Bobby Wagner’s 119. “It’s about us. It’s about a mind-set. When you have a mind-set of you’re not going to let anything get in your way, you’re determined …
“So you look at all the things you have to do, and you have to be a great tackler. When you have to tackle somebody in this defense, that’s why I like being the only guy back there because I’m tackling him, and I can cover the same routes and deep posts.”
The Seahawks’ aggressiveness have led to 142 penalties, the most in the NFL this season, and Thomas drew four — two unnecessary roughness calls, a roughing the passer and a pass interference.
It’s a way of intimidating the opposition.
“We love it,” Thomas said. “We love when a coach is on the sideline saying, ‘Hey, look at him, he’s holding.’ We love that because their energy is not in the right place. It’s just a great feeling. Every coach that we play is going to warn the refs in pregame about us just because if they let us play our ball nobody is going to get open because we’re so physical out there.
“We’re going to use every part of that 5-yard rule as much as possible, especially with our big cornerbacks when they’re stepping and kicking, and even in the slot with our nickel guys. They’re doing the same technique. Coaches are aware of that, and how physical we are, and how hard it is for receivers to really get open against that.”
Sometimes, the Seahawks’ aggressive defenders have to be careful to avoid running into each other. In a game against St. Louis late in the season, Thomas and Sherman — the NFL leader with eight interceptions — collided while going for the ball in the end zone.
“You can’t think about it,” Thomas said. “Hey, if that ball comes to the middle of the field … I’m covering this middle. … We’re all out there flying to the ball.”
That’s the way Seahawks defensive coordinator Dan Quinn wants Thomas to play.
“He’s critical for us,” Quinn said. “He’s one of the guys that I most admire on our team just by the way that he works at his job. You see it in walk-thru, you see it in practice, and it totally carries over into the game in terms of the style and attitude that he brings to our defense.”
If Thomas helps the Seahawks to a win in Super Bowl XLVIII, the comparisons to safeties such as Reed and Polamalu will be inevitable.
“It’s great to be even mentioned with those guys,” Thomas said. “It’s humbling. But you always want to strive to be better. I watch their games and try to take what they’re good at.
“Everything in my mind is about being the best to ever do it. Everything in my mind is separating myself from every defensive player in the league.”