The employment status of Pittsburgh Steelers defensive lineman Cam Thomas has been a hot topic for the entirety of the offseason, with many—perhaps more accurately, most—overwhelmingly favoring an early release to recoup a $2 million savings from his base salary.
Signed as a free agent last season to provide depth at an area in which much was lost that offseason, the Steelers relied on the young veteran to provide starter-level snaps at defensive end for the majority of the year, which proved to be out of his depth at the time.
If his performance against the Minnesota Vikings on Sunday night in the Hall of Fame game is an indication of the trajectory of his game, however, then the Steelers will be looking awfully smart for keeping him around, especially in light of Clifton Geathers’ status.
While striving not to oversell his showing—he did, after all, come in with the second-team unit—Thomas showed marked improvement from where he was last season, proving that all of that offseason work and another year in the system has paid off, at least in the early goings.
Take his very first snap of the game, for instance, at the beginning of the second quarter. What immediately sticks out is his improved first step. Not only is it quick for his size, he is the first one off the ball on either side. This was not an isolated incident.
In this case, his jump allowed him to catch the left guard off-leverage, sending him spilling to the turf. His penetration redirected the ball carrier, who was funneled back into the play by Sean Spence, which allowed Thomas the opportunity to make the tackle himself.
I would also point out that the Steelers presented a traditional base look on this first play, with both outside linebacker playing off the edge and Thomas playing 1-tech nose tackle. On the next snap, Keith Butler dropped Arthur Moats five yards off the ball and shaded directly behind Thomas, who shifted to a 3-tech defensive tackle position off the outside shoulder of the right guard. This is an example of the ‘4-3’ look that the defense showed on a number of occasions that night.
But the fun didn’t end there, as on the next snap Thomas played as the only down lineman directly over the center in the nickel. After giving a cursory rush, he actually dropped into a shallow zone coverage, as seen above.
On the Vikings’ next offensive possession, Thomas once again showed surprising quickness off the ball, working inside of the left guard, and helping to force quarterback Mike Kafka into an errant throw on a 3rd-and-8 opportunity.
Early in the Vikings’ third series of the second quarter, Thomas initially looked to be simply overmatched on this play, but upon reviewing it further, it’s clear that he is the victim of a block in the back as the left guard and left tackle work a combination block against him. He ends up tossing the left guard to the ground by the end of the play and expresses his frustration over no penalty being called, though the defense successfully defended the play anyway.
Although Kafka managed to convert on this 3rd-and-4 play, I like Thomas’ awareness here. Lined up as the right 3-tech in the nickel, the veteran spies the quarterback favoring the open offensive right side of the field, so he scrapes that way, ensuring that he would not be able to escape into the open field, which would have certainly been the case after Bud Dupree was caught inside.
As we get into the second half, we find early on arguably the worst rep of the day for Thomas, as he gets put on the turf courtesy of a double team by the center and right guard. Without the benefit of the coaches’ film, it’s difficult to discern if he may have also tripped over somebody in traffic. To his credit, however, he came back on the next snap to show quickness and active hands against a quick screen pass.
Thomas continued to play at a high level throughout the third quarter. Though it took time to develop, his interior pressure on this passing play above flushed the quarterback up the pocket, which allowed Ethan Hemer to release and record the Steelers’ only sack.
Thomas was on the field in a true 4-3 look with Mike Thornton on the one-yard line late in the third quarter when the Vikings were able to run it in, but he could hardly be blamed for it. Using that quick jump off the ball, he was able to penetrate the A gap and got a hand on the ball carrier, but none of his teammates were in a position to take advantage of the chaos that he created. He may have had a case to argue that he was held here as well.
Thomas continued to wreak havoc on the Vikings’ next possession. On the second play of the series, he used superior handfighting to win past the left guard’s outside shoulder, getting a hit on the quarterback and inducing an errant pass that should have been intercepted. The following pass would be intercepted.
For the purposes of highlighting Thomas’ newfound awareness and speed off the ball, I present the following sequence of images. The first image shows the play immediately as the center snaps the ball to the quarterback. You can already see that Thomas is the only player in motion. In the second image, you see just how much penetration he gets very quickly due to that first step, with the rest of the rushers still a yard off.
Thomas ended up being tackled—literally—by the left guard on this play without a flag. He came back to make the tackle on the next play. While he showed great improvement on individual plays throughout the night, what I came away most impressed by in his performance was the consistency from play to play.
He didn’t have very many negative plays at all. Frankly, it’s unlikely he will keep up this level of performance, but if he sustains even a resemblance of this, then he will have more than earned a spot on the 53-man roster.