GREEN BAY – Tight end Jared Cook watched Sunday night as Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas fell awkwardly after diving to knock away a downfield pass, clutched his left shin and hobbled up on one leg.
Trainers swarmed Thomas. A cart rolled him away. Cook’s interest peaked.
Nobody in the Green Bay Packers' locker room could better understand what Thomas’ season-ending fractured tibia means to Seattle’s defense. Cook shared a division with the Seahawks when he was with the then-St. Louis Rams, playing them twice each season for three years.
His battles with Thomas were competitive, if also indirect. In man coverage, Cook said, the Seahawks matched strong safety Kam Chancellor against him. Cook always had to be aware of Thomas – perhaps the NFL’s best free safety – while running routes deep across the middle of the field.
“He’s a sideline-to-sideline safety,” Cook said, “and when the ball’s in the air, he can get there. He’s so fast and so quick. He’s kind of their last line of defense. Whenever the ball breaks through, whenever it gets to the third level, he’s that guy that makes sure the ball doesn’t get past him. He’s a huge and integral part of that defense.”
He’s a player that can’t be replaced.
Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knows it. Speaking with reporters Wednesday, Carroll packed the clichés away. Next man up? Please. Thomas is more than that. His absence creates a vacuum in the secondary, not to mention their locker room.
So respected is Thomas, teammate Michael Bennett predicted Wednesday the three-time All-Pro is “probably going to be in the Hall of Fame” even if he retires immediately. Never mind Thomas has played only seven seasons, not yet 28 years old.
“He’s a very special guy,” Carroll said. “It’s hard to replace a guy like that, and we’re not trying to do that. We’re going to get (backup safety) Steven Terrell out there, and play the game that he knows how to play, and expect him to do really well.”
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Terrell was undrafted two years ago. He has started one game in his career. That was two weeks ago, a loss at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In that game, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston completed 75 percent of his passes, averaging 7.8 yards per pass, and finished with a 106.3 passer rating.
The Seahawks mostly kept Cook in check when he was in St. Louis. He caught five passes for 85 yards in an overtime win to open last season. In five other games, he averaged three catches for 25 yards and only scored one touchdown.
This week, Cook knows, will be different. He just can’t say how much. In Terrell, the Packers face an unknown challenge.
“There is a couple of plays with him on film,” Cook said, “but not too much.”
In the past, Thomas’ absence as the Seahawks' “last line of defense” would be a flashing, neon sign for the Packers: Throw the ball deep.
Not that quarterback Aaron Rodgers ever needs a reason to chuck it downfield. The two-time MVP is always searching for big plays. On Sunday, big plays could be there for the taking.
The question is whether the Packers can take them.
Much of Rodgers’ success throwing the football this season can be correlated with an unprecedented number of passes. Through 12 games, he is on track to throw a career-high 638 times. His 479 passes this season are already four more than he tossed in 2010.
Rodgers’ raw production hasn’t suffered – he’s on pace to clear the 4,000-yard mark – but the Packers are moving the football with quick, short passes. Rodgers’ 6.9 yards per pass is hardly an improvement from last season’s 6.7-yard average, a full yard – if not more – from his averages between 2009-14.
Rodgers’ longest pass this season was a 58-yard connection to receiver Jordy Nelson early in the Packers' game at the Atlanta Falcons. If it stands, it would be the first time since Rodgers became starting quarterback in 2008 he hasn’t completed a 60-yard pass in a season.
“We're not going to drop back,” Packers coach Mike McCarthy said, “and throw 50-yard post routes all day because they've got a new free safety. I don't think that's practical. I mean, you just see how the new guy fits in.”
There can be a reward for throwing deep this week.
One play after Thomas broke his leg, the Carolina Panthers faced third-and-17. Quarterback Cam Newton tossed a pass that looked more like a punt, and the Seahawks' last line of defense was missing. Receiver Ted Ginn Jr. got behind Terrell for a 55-yard touchdown.
With a week to prepare, Rodgers expects the Seahawks to have fewer breakdowns.
“That defense plays so well together,” Rodgers said. “They allow the free safety to roam a lot. One guy isn't going to equal a ton of holes out there on defense.They're still going to play their stuff, and they play it really, really well.”
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