In case you haven’t noticed, there are many who follow the Pittsburgh Steelers who are finding themselves disappointed with the lack of ‘progress’, and/or playing time, of second-year strong safety Shamarko Thomas. The Steelers traded away a 2014 third-round draft pick to select him in the fourth round in 2013.
Thomas found his rookie season quite active, at least as far as first-year players go on a Steelers defense. He logged nearly 200 defensive snaps during the first 10 weeks of the season, but when he suffered an ankle injury in the final game of that span, he was replaced by Will Allen in the lineup and never regained his spot.
The Steelers used him nearly exclusively as a slot cornerback a year ago while they morphed into a secondary-heavy defense, spending a great deal of time with five and six defensive backs on the field.
During the offseason, the coaching staff made it clear that they would like to keep Thomas in his role as the heir apparent to Troy Polamalu at strong safety rather than toying with his development. No doubt that has had an impact on the fact that he hasn’t played a single snap on defense this year.
In the last game against the Atlanta Falcons, there were three separate instances in which either Polamalu or Mike Mitchell temporarily came off the field for a few snaps due to a minor injury.
In each of those three cases, as both strong and free safety, it was Allen, and not Thomas, who was asked to fill in. In all, in fact, Allen has logged 175 defensive snaps this season, though well over half of that came during a two and a half game span in which he replaced Polamalu in the lineup.
As evidenced by the line of questions addressed to head coach Mike Tomlin during his press conference yesterday, even those in the media are beginning to wonder at the lack of playing time for the second-year safety, about whom the team’s hopes are high, despite the fact that there’s little supporting evidence that he could be successful in the lineup full-time at this stage.
Whether or not that might be true, Tomlin cited two reasons for his lack of playing time. To begin with, Thomas has already suffered through two separate hamstring injuries that have caused him to miss a great deal of time this season. The two injuries resulted in him missing six total games.
He has only been back on the field—on special teams, of course, where he has performed well—since the bye week, during the course of the past three games.
It’s quite clear, however, that Allen is the top backup at both safety positions, and that isn’t likely to change suddenly. Tomlin values the experience of veteran players, and he has a great familiarity with the player, while the player has a great familiarity with the system. Just because Thomas’ time isn’t now doesn’t mean it won’t come.