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Mind games key to Earl Thomas' play

SEATTLE -- The mood inside the Seattle Seahawks locker room three weeks ago was predictably lighthearted for a reigning Super Bowl champion before a Thursday afternoon practice. Running back Marshawn Lynch raised the volume on the portable stereo in his cubicle, blaring rap throughout the cavernous space. Defensive end Michael Bennett shimmied on the opposite side of the room, slowly swaying to the pulsating beat. Cornerback Richard Sherman fidgeted with his cell phone a few feet away, stretching his slender frame along a plush lounge chair.

Everybody in the room seemed to be relaxing except for one person: free safety Earl Thomas. He sat quietly at his locker, headphones strapped to his ears, a black mouthpiece stuffed between his lips, fully dressed in practice jersey and sweatpants. Thomas stared straight ahead, displaying so much intensity that nobody dared enter his space.

"I'll probably talk to him in 10 minutes," Sherman said. "But not before that."

This kind of focus isn't random for the 25-year-old Thomas. This is what he does every day -- whether preparing for a playoff game or a simple walk-through session -- because that's how the NFL's best safety is wired.

"It's not about me being the best safety," Thomas said. "It's about me being the best defensive back ever. That's what I'm after. That's how you leave a mark on this game. When I think about the Hall of Fame and things like that, that's why I grind so hard. I know I have a chance to redefine this position."

Thomas' dedication is legendary to anybody who's known him throughout his career. This is a man with such purpose that he used to spend his Sunday mornings playing the organ in church after starring for the Texas Longhorns on Saturdays. That same focus helped make him a leader of a Seattle secondary affectionately known as "The Legion of Boom." It also should be especially valuable to a team that is hoping for a big second half to the season.

After fielding the league's best defense last season, Seattle has forced just 12 turnovers this year (it had a league-high 39 in 2013). The Seahawks have also surrendered 227 passing yards per game, compared to 172 last season.

"We don't feel like we've been as disruptive as we were," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "Hopefully we'll get back to causing more problems."

Injuries and an inconsistent pass rush have weighed heavily in Seattle's current problems, but one thing Carroll doesn't have to worry about is Thomas. Sherman might be the most vocal member of Seattle's secondary, but Thomas, a three-time Pro Bowler, is its soul.

"We want him to own the middle of the field," Seahawks defensive backs coach Kris Richard said. "Any deep ball that goes up, we think 'Earl, let's go.' Anybody breaks through the front line of our defense, we think, 'Earl, get him down.' We have to be strong up the middle so in a lot of ways, he's our savior back there."

The Seahawks made Thomas the league's highest-paid safety -- signing him to a four-year, $40 million extension this offseason -- largely because he can do everything the position requires. While some of the game's top safeties thrive as run defenders (such as fellow Seahawk Kam Chancellor and Cleveland's Donte Whitner) and others are converted cornerbacks (New England's Devin McCourty and the New York Giants' Antrel Rolle), the 5-foot-10, 202-pound Thomas is both a banger and a ball hawk. His 4½-year career already includes 396 tackles, 16 interceptions and five forced fumbles. That versatility also has led Carroll -- who has coached greats such as Ronnie Lott and Troy Polamalu -- to say Thomas is as good as any safety he's ever handled.

"He's a physical football player," Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera said. "He plays downhill. He attacks the football. And he's very smart. He really understands the game."

The Seahawks use Thomas in the deep middle of a scheme that rotates mainly between a three-deep zone and man coverage. His main responsibilities are to recognize which receivers can challenge that area and which cornerbacks need help on the outside. Though Thomas only picked up his first interception of the season in Sunday's over the Giants, he finished 2013 with five interceptions and ranked second on the team with 105 tackles.

He also has a penchant for arriving out of nowhere to make amazing plays.

Thomas did that last year when he snagged a pass that bounced off three different Seahawks in a win over Houston and again against Arizona, when he ranged to the sideline to make a diving interception on a tipped ball intended for Larry Fitzgerald.

"The safeties here are taught to take two things away -- the seam and the post routes," Chancellor said. "And Earl knows where the seam and post threats are. He has such a feel for the game that he can look at two receivers and know who is going to run the deep route."

Actually, Thomas would love the opportunity to play closer to the line of scrimmage at times instead of routinely lining up 15 to 20 yards deep. That would allow him to make a greater impact on the run game because, as he said, "I'm very selfish in that I want to show who I am." The Seahawks have used him more as a blitzer this season and briefly as a punt returner, but it's still difficult for Thomas not to crave more action. He's had that itch ever since his days at Texas.

Thomas joined the Longhorns in 2007 after playing running back, slot receiver and cornerback at West Orange-Stark High in southeast Texas. He left as a consensus All-America safety.

"Earl was so good that he could leave his responsibilities and go after the football simply because he instinctively knew what the quarterback was trying to do," said former Texas coach and current ESPN analyst Mack Brown. "By the third game of his first season, we knew he wasn't going to just be good. He was going to be great."

Unfortunately for Brown, Thomas didn't stay at Texas for long. Midway through his redshirt sophomore season, Thomas walked into Brown's office looking distraught and anxious. Brown already knew that Thomas' family had lost their home in Hurricane Rita, when Thomas was a junior in high school, and that his relatives lived in a Motel 6 before finding lodging in his grandfather's rebuilt home. As Thomas told Brown that day, it was time to help support his loved ones by deciding to enter the 2010 NFL draft.

Brown remembered that Thomas "was almost naive to the point that he didn't even know how good he would be at the next level."

The Seahawks realized that shortly after making Thomas the 14th overall pick in the draft. When current defensive coordinator Dan Quinn first watched Thomas practice as a rookie, he was blown away. The NFL is filled with fast players, Quinn thought. This guy is making everyone else look slow.

The problem early on was that Thomas took too many risks with that speed. As a rookie, Giants quarterback Eli Manning burned him in one game, and New Orleans' Drew Brees beat him with big plays in another. Seattle lost both games. Thomas eventually frustrated Carroll to the point that the coach considered benching him.

"Earl was trying so hard to show that he could make a play that they got him," Quinn said. "They baited him instead of him trusting in his technique."

Said Thomas, "If I saw something in my rookie year, I went after it because of my instincts. I made some mistakes, but I also made some plays. As time progressed, I learned how to control that [aggressiveness]."

Those early lessons played a huge role in the way Thomas approaches the game now. During a typical week of practice, he normally arrives at the facility around 8 a.m. and stays until 10:30 p.m. Along with searching for clues within the offense while studying film -- such as whether a quarterback looks down the middle of the field before going to his target -- Thomas points an equally critical eye at himself.

"I go through all the plays that I messed up on," Thomas said. "People are digging deep, because it's hard to beat us. They'll try to disguise things to see if we've learned from our mistakes."

It's not a coincidence that the "Legion of Boom" started with Thomas' arrival. His teammates in the secondary also swear that his quiet nature belies a competitive streak. As Sherman said, "Earl talks way more on the field than he does anywhere else."

Thomas recently felt the need to openly complain about the officiating in a 28-26 loss to St. Louis. A few days later, he added that his team wasn't about to panic after two consecutive losses.

"You can't change who you are because you are facing some stuff that's not working out for you," he said.

Thomas merely was suggesting that Seattle, which improved to 6-3 after Sunday's win, remains good enough to defend its title. But he maintains an even grander vision for himself.

"My mindset is the key to my success," Thomas said. "It's the way I attack the game and the way I look at things in life. God gave me all this ability, so I want to capitalize on it. I have a clear vision of who I want to be, and that's what I'm striving for every day."