Earlier this offseason, Pittsburgh Steelers defensive backs coach Carnell Lake told reporters that the plan for this season was to try to keep second-year defensive back Shamarko Thomas at his natural position of strong safety.
But if he continues to play with the instincts and explosiveness that he showed a week ago against the New York Giants, then I might be inclined to ask the coaching staff to reconsider that strategy to get him on the field.
Like linebacker Sean Spence, “Shark” really seems to have the vision and awareness to play this game with high mental acuity. Their see-to-do and intuition of plays would seem only to be bested by one of the greatest of all time in that department, Troy Polamalu, to whom Thomas is an apprentice. And the young man has proven to be a worthy study.
With the Steelers in their base package facing a 21 personnel package, Thomas here is shaded just 10 yards off the ball, anticipating a run, which he got. He headed forward soon after the snap, and when Josh Mauro helped seal the left-side gap, Thomas was there, cutting inside to meet and bring down running back Andre Williams in the opposite hole. The drive stalled after an incomplete pass on the next play.
Later on in the second quarter, in base defense facing 11 personnel with a bunched set on the right side of the formation, Thomas again walked up into the box. He snuffed out the hole that Williams was running through and was again the first responder to the scene, though bringing down the back proved to be a group project.
Later in the drive, with the Steelers in their nickel package to counter the Giants’ spread formation, Thomas dropped deep off the ball this time, but quickly read the running back screen. He shot into the frame like a dagger and lowered the helmet to bring down Kendall Gaskins after a short gain on second and long. This play really shows you why his nickname is “Headache”. He’s given himself concussions in the past. Reckless abandon for his own safety.
His most impressive play of the night came on the Giants’ first possession of the second half, when he blew up get another screen to Gaskins for a loss of three. It was a very similar play as before, with the Steelers’ nickel defense countering New York’s three-receiver set, and Thomas backed off well behind the line of scrimmage.
You can see Thomas shoot into the frame even before the quarterback has his arm fully cocked back. Thomas must be reading his tendencies because he once again snuffed out the running back screen and knifed right through Gaskins in the backfield in a spectacular collision. The second-year safety was absolutely right to take some small satisfaction at the end of this play. The pump fake didn’t hurt either.