Even though the Pittsburgh Steelers refuse to put him on the field, they have never tried to hide just how much they like second-year strong safety Shamarko Thomas.
In fact, the fact that they like him as much as they do perhaps contributes to his lack of playing time this year on the defensive side of the ball.
During his rookie season, of course, he logged nearly 200 snaps, most of which came in the slot, covering wide receivers and tight ends.
He was forced out of that role about halfway through the season with an ankle injury, replaced by veteran safety Will Allen, and he failed to log another snap on defense since Week 10 last year. The Steelers are adamant in keeping him at strong safety for now.
But that doesn’t mean that he hasn’t been a valuable contributor to the Steelers this season, as he has been one of their best special teams players. He has been particularly adept as a gunner on the punt coverage team.
Last season, Thomas logged 10 tackles on special teams. This year, he has only one, but that doesn’t accurately reflect his contributions to the unit.
And it’s difficult to get a read on his performance without actually watching it and studying it, if only because nobody keeps track of things such as the number of fair catches one forces or punts downed by an individual player.
On the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ second kickoff, which was returned by LeGarrette Blount, for example, Thomas was able to throw a block on Major Wright to help get Blount to the corner.
On Brad Wing’s first punt, he was jammed by two defenders and actually held, but the return stood as it was without a flag, returned for 25 yards.
When the Steelers had the opportunity to return a punt for the first time, Thomas and Brice McCain served as vice jammers on the right side. Thomas worked inside with McCain on the outside.
When Thomas passed the gunner off to McCain, McCain released the gunner, who was the first one downfield forcing the fair catch. You could see Thomas’ frustration after the fact, and he appeared to be gesturing some instruction to McCain.
On the Steelers’ first punt of the second half, he easily ran past the single jammer as the first one down the field to force a fair catch, even if the returner tried to field it after the fact. On the team’s next punt, he weaved through two jammers to chase the returner to the opposite side of the field.
These are just a few of the small details of Thomas’ special teams play that might go unnoticed without watching for it, or without repeat viewings. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that he made Pro Football Focus’ First Quarter All-Star Team as a special teamer, despite having only one tackle.