49ers royally focused on The Earl of Seahawks defense


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’ve tried to clone Thomas, the Seattle Sehawks’ four-time All-Pro.

The 49ers’ candidates: Jimmie Ward, Jaquiski Tartt and Lorenzo Jerome. Each member of that trio has spent the past six months obsessively studying Thomas’ tendencies.

Ward, actually, has followed Thomas since the 2010 BCS National 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.’ ”

San Francisco 49ers cornerback Jimmie Ward (25) during an NFL football game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Nov. 13, 2016, in Glendale, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri) 

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 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,” Tartt 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.”

San Francisco 49ers Delanie Walker (46) runs with the ball against Seattle Seahawks Earl Thomas (29) in the second quarter at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Calif, on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010. (Nhat V. Meyer/
San Francisco 49ers Delanie Walker (46) runs with the ball against Seattle Seahawks Earl Thomas (29) in the second quarter at Candlestick Park in San Francisco, Calif, on Sunday, Dec. 12, 2010. (Nhat V. Meyer/ 

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 Packers’ 17-9 loss Sunday at Green Bay.

Coach Kyle Shanahan told KNBR 680-AM 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.

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