When the Seattle Seahawks needed their defensive leader to step up and make a game-changing play, Earl Thomas III delivered.
After the Hawks pulled to within one point, 24-23, with 4:43 remaining after a Christine Michael touchdown run, the extra point was blocked by the Atlanta Falcons. Thankfully, ET III and the L.O.B. came to the rescue.
Three plays into the ensuing drive, Matt Ryan threw a short pass to Julio Jones, but the ball ricocheted off of Jones’ hands, then off of Richard Sherman’s before No. 29 hauled in the interception that set up the game-winning field goal to give Seattle a 26-24 victory.
“I’m very confident,” Earl said. “It’s crazy over the years, the more and more I play football—especially how the season started off, I was missing open-field tackles—you kind of take stuff for granted. I’m used to, if something breaks, I’m going to stop the bleeding. But when they’re breaking and I’m wobbling and it’s not going my way, you’ve got to take a deep look at yourself in the mirror, you’ve got to keep pushing, you can’t be complacent. When you work hard, you always pray and hope and believe in yourself that it’s going to turn out the way it did today.”
With Kam Chancellor sidelined by a groin injury, Earl was relied upon heavily, and the All-Pro safety came through in a big way on Sunday afternoon. Thomas, who was one of the best players on the field all afternoon, finished the day with three important passes defended via vicious hits in the middle of the field, coupled with his second pick of the season.
“I know what I’m capable of,” ETIII explained. “It’s so hard to show your skills week in and week out, because we have so many great players, but when you get a chance to stand up, you definitely want to do it.”
The first half was a successful one for Thomas and the Hawks, as they shut down the NFL’s top-ranked offense through the first two quarters of play. After Seattle punted on the first series, the defense did their job containing the Falcons on their opening drive. On a 3rd-and-11, Ryan was targeting Mohamed Sanu, but Thomas was there to break up the pass in the middle of the field and force an Atlanta punt. After another Seahawks punt on the following possession, the defense kept making plays.
“I thought [Earl] played a fantastic game,” Sherman explained. “I thought he was on course and he made some big hits. He played like Earl Thomas.”
On the third play of the drive, Ryan was sacked by Cliff Avril, who forced a fumble that was recovered by Tony McDaniel at the Atlanta 9-yard line. The turnover set up a 9-yard Michael touchdown run to put the Hawks up 7-0 after the successful extra point.
Earl and the D continued to hold Ryan and the Falcons offense in check until early in the second frame when they got on the board after a Matt Bryant 33-yard field goal to make it a 7-3 game with 8:42 to play in the half.
The Hawks offense responded on their next drive and came away with another touchdown after rookie Alex Collins found the end zone on a short 2-yard rushing score. After the defense forced a three-and-out, Seattle had a chance to add to its lead after the two-minute warning, and they were able to come away with a Steven Hauschka field goal from 42 yards out to pull ahead 17-3.
Atlanta’s high-octane offense scored their first touchdown of the game on the opening series of the second half as its 9-play drive was capped off by a deep 36-yard touchdown connection from Ryan to Julio Jones. The score made it a 17-10 game and the Falcons were able to capitalize again on their following series after a Seahawks punt.
Ryan drove his team downfield for the second time in a row and capped off an eight-play drive with a 10-yard strike to Sanu that knotted things up at 17 apiece at the 6:16 mark of the third quarter. The quarter continued to go in the Falcons’ favor, and after another Seattle punt, Atlanta found the end zone again on a 46-yard bomb to tight end Levine Toilolo.
The Falcons took a 24-17 lead into the fourth, but the Seahawks kept battling. In a promising drive early in the quarter, Hauschka was set up for 29-yard field goal that would have chipped away at the deficit, but the Hawks kicker missed wide left.
After a big three-and-out forced by the Seahawks defense, Russel Wilson orchestrated an impressive nine-play drive that resulted in a 1-yard Michael touchdown run, but the extra point that would have tied the game was blocked by Ra’Shede Hageman, and it stayed a 24-23 game.
It was then time for the L.O.B. to showcase once again why they are the most feared unit in the league. Needing a stop or turnover to give their team a chance to win, No. 29 topped off his terrific game with the crucial interception that set up the game-winning field goal for Seattle.
Ryan was looking for Jones on a deep pass down the left side, but the ball bounced off his hands, then tipped off Sherman before the former Longhorn star got his hands on the ball and came away with the takeaway.
“I thought he had an amazing day. That’s why he’s Earl Thomas, one of the best to ever play this game,” cornerback DeShawn Shead explained. “I thought he did an amazing job.”
Seven plays and 24 yards later, Hauschka redeemed himself from a lackluster afternoon by drilling his 44-yard attempt that put Seattle ahead 26-24 at the two-minute warning. Atlanta had another shot, but Earl and the defense held on.
On the final attempt of the contest on fourth down, Ryan was looking for Jones on a deep ball but the star wide-out couldn’t make a play on the ball. The Seahawks held their breath, awaiting a possible flag for interference but no penalty was called and ET III and Co. held on for the impressive win.
“I thought Earl had a great game. He made some great break-ups,” Pete Carroll said after the victory. “He just looks like he’s full speed, on fast-forward the whole time.”
Seattle (4-1) will have another tough test next week when they travel to Glendale to face off against the Arizona Cardinals (2-3) on Sunday Night Football. The last time the two teams met was in the playoffs last season when the Hawks came away with a lopsided 36-6 victory.
Carson Palmer and the Cardinals haven’t looked like the dominant team they were last season, but they still have the playmakers on both sides of the ball and can’t be taken lightly. Led by a receiving corps featuring Larry Fitzgerald, John Brown and Michael Floyd, and one of the best young backs in the game, David Johnson, Earl and the secondary will have their hands full.
The game is slated to kick off at 5:30 p.m. PT from University of Phoenix Stadium and will be aired on NBC.