'Hit Man' Thomas making impact on Packers

Michael Cohen
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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GREEN BAY - The most recent endorsement of linebacker Joe Thomas took place Monday afternoon, some 17 hours after the Green Bay Packers held quarterback Eli Manning to fewer than 200 yards through the air and a sub-80 passer rating. Behind the lectern stood defensive coordinator Dom Capers, questioned about the gladiatorial gash on Blake Martinez’s nose.

Green Bay Packers strong safety Micah Hyde (33) and linebacker Joe Thomas (48) celebrate a pass breakup against the New York Giants at Lambeau Field October 9, 2016.

Two weeks earlier, blood spewed across Martinez’s face as a scab reopened against the Detroit Lions, his helmet smashing the bridge of his nose. It obscured the vision of the rookie inside linebacker, and trainers plugged the leak with a mummy mask of bandage tape.

It stood to reason, then, that Martinez’s reduced involvement against the New York Giants — he played just 15 snaps — might have been attributed to the healing wound. A theory that was swiftly dispelled.

“I don’t think it was a factor at all, really,” Capers said.

Instead, the primary factor was Thomas, a second-year inside linebacker who turned heads in training camp and craned necks during the first month of the season. By retaining his job as the coverage linebacker, Thomas has usurped playing time from Martinez, the rookie fourth-round pick brought in by general manager Ted Thompson to fill the very role Thomas won’t relinquish. In fact, his responsibilities have steadily grown.

“Joe’s been our dime linebacker,” Capers said. “So in situations that we felt were throwing or matchup situations, then Joe is our matchup guy.”

Bottled inside the new Joe Thomas is the fire of the old Joe Thomas, a player cut by the Packers at the end of camp last season. At the time, Thomas was as stunned as he was furious — he admitted to throwing Packers gear around his apartment — and signed a contract to join the Dallas Cowboys’ practice squad the next day.

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Thomas lasted two weeks in Dallas before his old employers came calling. A season-ending injury to linebacker Sam Barrington left Capers with a hole in the middle of his defense, and the options for replacement were Nate Palmer, a converted outside linebacker or Jake Ryan, a rookie. Capers needed someone who could cover, someone with a little more experience, so Thompson phoned Joe Thomas.

“He’s a quick guy,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “On third down the other offenses like to put their scat back in, so he’s a quick guy who can stay on those guys. He can stay on tight ends. He’s really good in that third-down package that we have.”

Thomas wields a different sword than nearly every inside linebacker in Capers’ tenure, which began in 2009. Previous dime linebackers were much taller, like Brandon Chillar and Brad Jones, who are both 6-foot-3. Others were more forceful and brute, like Barrington in the second half of 2014. Another backer, Brad Jones, held the job mostly because A.J. Hawk could no longer run.

In this evolved role, Thomas dedicates the majority of his attention to running backs acting as receivers out of the backfield. He watches a minimum of 12 hours of film each week — half at Lambeau Field, half at home — with the goal of absorbing the offensive tendencies of the opposition.

His film study has two components. When it comes to running backs, Thomas wants to learn their route tree. He wants to know what they do on certain downs and distances. He watches their mannerisms coming in and out of breaks.

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This week, he combed over tape of Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys’ star rookie running back and the leading rusher in the league. He's the player Thomas is most likely to cover Sunday afternoon.

“He’s a good back,” Thomas said. “He’s a great catcher. He can catch the ball well. He’s not as polished at route running as a lot of backs are, but once he gets the ball in his hands he can be a problem.”

The second purpose is somewhat clairvoyant. Thomas, 25, believes the micro nature of NFL preparation lends itself to calculated guesses. In other words, after hours of film in the classroom and hours of film at home, Thomas feels confident in his ability to anticipate — generally speaking — what the opposing receivers are going to do on any given play.

He offers an example: In the dime defense, Thomas works closely with the two slot cornerbacks to cordon off the middle of the field. He scans the offense as the play clock ticks. He communicates with the corners, typically Hyde and Rollins, to identify which areas of the field the receivers might target.

Proof positive of why teammates and coaches praise Thomas for his football IQ.

“Pre-snap looks, knowing what the receivers are going to do,” Thomas said. “Are they going to cross the ball and come into our zones? And communication during the down (is critical).

“When we predict it well, we’re not playing behind the wide receiver, we’re not chasing. We’re waiting on the wide receiver to come to us, and that helps the coverage out a lot.”

Thomas’ mental acuity dovetailed nicely with extra muscle he added during the offseason, bumping his weight to 235 pounds on a 6-foot-1-inch frame. For the first time, Thomas is playing the run authoritatively, which enables Capers to keep him on the field for more than just third down. He is filling gaps and unleashing memorable blows.

“That’s what he’s known for,” said outside linebacker Jayrone Elliott, one of Thomas’ closest friends. “Actually, his name in my phone is Hit Man. That was his name in college. He kind of got a name that stuck with him.”

Added Hyde: “That boy can hit. People may see him as undersized, but it’s funny because he gets underneath people’s pads all the time and man, he can lay the wood.”

That wasn't always evident a year ago, when Thomas made the active roster for the first time in his career. His thinner frame proved futile against oncoming linemen or bruising tailbacks. He got flattened at times and overpowered during others. He played 33 percent of snaps in his first four games and almost always on passing downs.

This season, the numbers and production have soared. Against the Giants, while Martinez mostly watched, Thomas tied with Jake Ryan for the most snaps by an inside linebacker with 41. His percentage of snaps played has risen to 48 through the first four games. He has more tackles (11) than outside linebacker Clay Matthews (8). He has three passes defended and one interception, which is as many picks as the rest of the team combined.

“Joe is a football player, man,” Hyde said. “He’s a go-getter. He’s a hitter. I get to play with him personally a lot with me being the dime (corner) and him being the linebacker on dime, we work a lot together as far as passing routes and all that stuff. He’s a smart football player. And like I said, that boy can hit.”

He’s winning over the defense one endorsement at a time.

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