Shamarko Thomas Hoping Better Understanding Of The Defense Leads To Bigger Role

In a sense, Pittsburgh Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas can be said to be the forgotten man of the 2014 rookie draft class.

Not that he’s a rookie, of course. The Steelers drafted him in the fourth round of the 2013 NFL Draft, but they traded away their 2014 third-round pick to get there.

Unlike the incoming class, however, Thomas already has a jump start on learning the defense, having already spent more than a year digesting all of its nuances while gaining valuable on-field experience to the tune of nearly 200 snaps.

And that year of apprenticeship is expected to pay dividends as the versatile second-year defensive back looks to take on a bigger role this season:

I have progressed a lot. I just know the whole defense now. Last year I was all over the place, just wanting to know my role. This year I am just settled in and comfortable and just playing.

It’s like college, your freshman year you don’t know the defense and the next year you settle in and fly around and make plays. That’s what I am doing now. I don’t have to think and second guess myself. I just fly around and make plays.

Thomas did some of that last season, and was as times seeing significant snaps during the middle part of the season. He played 50 of 65 defensive snaps against the Baltimore Ravens, registering seven tackles in the process. Things started to go south, however, when they stuck him on Rob Gronkowski against the New England Patriots.

Thomas could not contend with the All-Pro tight end’s massive size and athleticism, and was clearly overmatched. In the next game, he sustained an ankle injury, and never regained his position in the sub-package rotation because of valuable practice time being missed, which is vital for a rookie.

It was veteran safety Will Allen who became the dime back from there on out, and he played well. Does Thomas figure to have a chance to win back that job this year? “I don’t know”, he said. “That is up to the coaches. I am going to work my butt off and come to camp ready. What happens, happens”.

He knows that he needs to make himself heard this season, not just to get noticed, but to improve his communication on the field. “I am a quiet person”, he said. “I need to communicate and be consistent. That is my biggest thing. I talk to Troy every day and try to be consistent in everything I do”.

Nor does he be any means assume that he’s mastered the playbook in just a bit over a year’s time since he was first drafted.

An intricate understanding of the defense is especially crucial for a player such as Thomas, whose role by nature requires versatility, as he can be asked to fulfill a number of different roles within the secondary on any given play. Yet still, he feels that he has managed to reach a level of comfort in his knowledge of the defense:

“I was playing nickel, safety, and I was in packages and all over the place. The big thing Troy told me was to learn the whole defense, so it was a great development last year learning the whole defense and now I am here comfortable because I know where everybody is and where I am supposed to be and where to make plays”.

Thomas’ long-term role in this defense is unclear. I don’t know that it would necessarily be looked at as a disappointment if he does not become the heir apparent to Troy Polamalu at strong safety, for example.

But in the present, his versatility is a valuable commodity for the defense in 2014, and he appears ready for his role both physically and mentality, wherever and whenever that might be.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi
Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.
  • Eric MacLaurin

    I always thought a key angle to the value of trading for the pick used to select him was that we basically used a 2014 pick for a player for a rookie that already know the system and is ready to play. The extra year of experience has value even though I haven’t figured out a way to quantify it.

    I get a little touchy with him and Ike ever being graded for losing one on one to a great player as though success should be expected. Getting torched by gronk in your rookie season doesn’t mean anything bad. Especially for a player as short as he is.

  • Weiss Chad

    IMO the guy would make an excellent hybrid nickel back.It really wouldn’t surprise me if they move gay over to Ike’s spot next yr and put shark in gays role.Drafting another safety next yr to take over for Troy in 16,giving Troy this yr and next and making this Ike’s last yr.With that being said,I actually believe Ike has a better year this year than last year.I hope that’s the case anyway

  • mem359

    Troy P. occasionally freelances in Lebeau’s defense. If they are training Thomas to know the entire defense and get used to being anywhere on the field, it does seem like they are grooming him to be Troy’s heir.

  • cencalsteeler

    There is a traffic jam at the lb position and it seems Shazier is the front runner. Spence would be a perfect replacement for Troy, imo. Save the draft pick for Heath’s eventual replacement.

  • falconsaftey43

    On a related note. Looks like CB Brandon Flowers has been released. Would be a nice addition to the secondary depending on what kind of money he is looking for.

  • Weiss Chad

    I remember that being a rumor when spence was drafted.If spence is back to normal and plays anything like he did for hurricanes it will be difficult to keep kid off field.imo Heath has three to four years left.Im not counting last year as he was obviously not a hundred percent.He is only 31..I can’t say the same for Troy .Imo he is getting to slow.i believe the offense is as good now as ever if not better.Its the defense Imo that is going to need help.cb,safety,and probably olb due to worilds moving on next yr if no contract/tag or jones not becoming the olb we all hope.if we were drafting for next years draft today I would go safety,cb,olb first three picks.just my oppinion

  • OIF3gunner

    I really like Shamarko!

  • Matt Manzo

    I’m hoping he can be Troys replacement! If not, at least a solid back up at S and CB for years to come.
    But I’d be a little disappointed if he didn’t turn into the missle that we all hope.

  • cencalsteeler

    Nice post. My only thing I’d flop with you would be the Troy/Heath debate. Troy played out of position a lot last season and looked out of his comfort zone. Plus, he just is not big enough to play a hybrid lb position (insert Shazier here). Now, Troy can get back to being Troy in his natural ss position this season and should be able to contribute a lot more. Shazier will help Troy like the pass rush will help the corners.
    Now, Heath is a very, very good TE with sure hands. Not an excellent blocker, but a very good one. Behind him we have an aging Spaeth. I’m ready for the Steelers to inject some elite talent at the position similar to a Vernon Davis. A true playmaker. A game changer. By the time the draft pick sees the field, Heath will be 33.
    I’d go FA with a nice proven corner. Transition Spence to SS. Shark to nickel/safety. Draft: TE, OLB, OL, CB.

  • Bill

    Don’t agree with the conclusion that Heath is not an excellent blocker. Ex-coaches and GMs say he has been one of the best tight ends in the NFL and one of the big reasons is his blocking. He was off his game during the 2013 season due to the serious knee injury at the end of 2012 but in the years prior he was a great blocker. Hopefully, now fully recovered, he again demonstrates that ability.


    Shark is a hard hitting SS. IMO that’s his best fit. I think they drafted him because of Troy’s injury problems not expecting him to fully recover. If he can play nickel corner than good for him. I don’t ever see that being his strength though.


    the strong safety in a cover 3 often has that ability. They can be moved up in the box a lot since they have the 3-deep zone behind them. The main goal is for him to limit the amount of YAC on the short timed routes that the Cover 3 is susceptible to.

  • Jeff

    I like the direction of the Steelers as far as acquiring depth at the safety position… In the past few years, if Troy or Clark went down, I had that feeling of “okay, well we’re screwed.” I don’t necessarily have that feeling anymore if Troy happened to go down with an injury for a few weeks. I’m not saying there isn’t a drop off there, but it just feels a little better knowing Shark is starting to understand the defense.