While Pittsburgh Steelers safety Shamarko Thomas failed to play a defensive snap during the second half of the 2013 season, he played enough in the first eight games to know just how complicated the defense run by Dick LeBeau really is.
“I was all over the place last year because I didn’t know the playbook,” Thomas recently told Ralph N. Paulk of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “I was thrown into the fire, and sometimes I got burned. I’m more knowledgeable about this defense.”
The Steelers were forced to throw the then-rookie Syracuse product into proverbial fire last year thanks to them losing veteran inside linebacker Larry Foote for the season in the second half of the opener against the Tennessee Titans. The loss of Foote resulted in more dime personnel being used as the primary defensive sub package and Thomas saw a lot of action in the slot defender as a result.
An ankle injury suffered in the Week 10 game against the Buffalo Bills forced Thomas to miss the next two games and when he returned to action he had lost his spot to veteran safety Will Allen. Thomas, however, feels the playing time he did receive as a rookie certainly helped him.
“I picked up a lot playing multiple positions last year,” Thomas said during last month’s organized team activities (OTAs), according to Paulk. “The playbook is easier to learn, but I need to come out every day as if it’s game day.”
Prior to the start of free agent signing period this past offseason, it looked as if Thomas might be in line to replace outgoing veteran free safety Ryan Clark in 2014. Those hopes were quickly dashed, however, when the Steelers signed Carolina Panthers free agent safety Mike Mitchell on day-one of the new league year. Even though Mitchell was a priority offseason signing, Thomas, as you would expect, isn’t ready to concede the starting job to him.
“The expectation is to start, but at the end of the day, it’s about what the coaches want,” Thomas said. “But don’t get it wrong, we’re going to compete.”
While Thomas might have a hard time topping the nearly 200 snaps that he played last year during his second season, he said he’s going to continue to grind and stay in the ear of his mentor Polamalu, who he trained with during the offseason out in California.
“We’re not just talking about football,” said Thomas of Polamalu. “We’re talking about life because if you’re not consistent off the field, then you won’t be consistent on the field.
“I feel like I’m in my zone because I’ve been consistent with my workouts and learning something every day.”
A solid training camp this year by Thomas could result in the Steelers being able to only carry four safeties on the 53 man roster this season instead of five. Should that ultimately wind up being the case, it would likely result in the team parting ways with either Allen or third-year safety Robert Golden. Golden, however, is a solid special teams player, while Allen knows the defense inside and out and is a longtime favorite of head coach Mike Tomlin.
Regardless of how many safeties make the final 53 man roster out of training camp this year, Thomas is expected to be a huge contributor on special teams in 2014 as he continues to work on mastering the defensive scheme. As a rookie, Thomas was credited with six total special teams tackles.
The Steelers will report to Latrobe for training camp a week from this coming Friday.