Asking any NFL player to fill the shoes of Troy Polamalu is a hefty task, but requiring those responsibilities of a third-year player who saw just three defensive snaps last season makes the request seem even more monumental.
Nevertheless that is what the Pittsburgh Steelers will ask of Shamarko Thomas this season, and while no one expects him to replicate the impact of Polamalu in his prime, the Syracuse safety will likely be given plenty of opportunity in Keith Butler’s defense this season. Given Thomas’ expanding role, I thought it would be helpful to revisit his college tape and recall what the hard-hitting safety’s strengths and weaknesses were coming into the NFL. With just 192 defensive snaps in two seasons, many of which came in a nickel or dime role, it only felt fair to go back to when he played a more traditional safety spot at Syracuse.
Today we’ll specifically look at Thomas’ run defense, as his prowess in this area was one of his calling cards entering the draft.
First, to be a great in-the-box run defender, especially as undersized as Thomas is (5’8, 213), a physical mindset is absolutely mandatory. That’s never been an issue for Thomas, as we see him check off this box emphatically on an opening kickoff vs. Pitt during his senior season.
Steelers football? Yep.
That nastiness carries over onto the defensive side of the football, where Thomas rarely hesitates to attack downhill from his safety position, whether in the box or lined up deep. Here he helps blow up a 4th-and-one rushing attempt by USC with an instinctive and physical stop.
Thomas not only gets a great jump on the ball, but he again shows no qualms about mixing it up at the line of scrimmage with offensive line behemoths twice his size. That mentality is absolutely vital to playing safety in the NFL, where Thomas will be smaller than almost every matchup he draws. When you can overcome size deficiencies with heart, instincts, physicality, and effort, you’re already on your way to imitating Polamalu.
The play above may not look as impressive to the average fan, but it is one of the best in Thomas’ tape in my opinion. Many safeties simply attack running plays in a linear fashion, trying to blow up the play in the backfield with a highlight reel impact. Thomas has that type of mindset, but here he reins in his mentality to mirror-and-match the movement of the ball with his feet. As the back re-routes the play to the right, Thomas moves accordingly, then attacks when he realizes he has the ball carrier pinned in. Doesn’t necessarily make the play, but that kind of control and eye discipline as a deep run defender are rare at this stage.
This control and mental processing isn’t always present for Thomas, but he did grow by leaps and bounds over the course of his college career in this area. Still, here’s the result of a play where he failed to break down and contain the runner, giving up a score in the process.
Thomas comes downhill like a runaway train on this play, but USC wide receiver Robert Woods easily jukes the out-of-control defender, jettisoning into the clear unscathed. If Thomas’ approach is a little more harnessed, he likely makes this stop and holds the play to a minimal gain. Sometimes the desire to deal out a big shot is too tempting for Thomas, leading him to pass up on the sure tackle.
Another issue that occasionally shows up is Thomas’ pursuit angles, which he’ll occasionally take with disastrous results. Here’s one of the more egregious examples from the USC game again.
Thomas reads the reverse from the opposite side of the field, but there is clearly no way he is going to reach Marqise Lee before the wide receiver picks up a big gain. With a deeper angle in pursuit Thomas can probably help chase down the play, but instead he sees a blocker coming and widens his trajectory into the backfield, effectively eliminating himself from the play.
Granted these plays are taken from the Syracuse product’s senior college season, now almost three years ago, so he’ll undoubtedly have to knock off some rust after rarely seeing the field defensively in 2014. Thomas will always have physical and length limitations to overcome, but if he can improve his discipline as a tackler and enhance his angle play in pursuit, many of the other vital tools are already present for him to be an impact player in the Steelers defense.