After being sidelined in Week 12 with a hamstring injury, Earl Thomas III is poised to return to the field in Week 13 when the Seattle Seahawks (7-3-1) take on the Carolina Panthers (4-7) on Sunday Night Football.
No. 29 was held out of practice early this week, but after a couple consecutive days as a full participant, all signs point to the star safety being back in uniform to try and help his team return to the win column.
ET III had made 118 straight starts before a strained hamstring forced him out of action last week. Not being on the field was tough for No. 29 especially as he watched from afar, from a Buffalo Wild Wings in Portland, as his Seahawks fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers by a score of 14-5.
“It was definitely hard,” he explained. “Luckily, I had my wife and my daughter there with me. It was definitely a tough time. Very emotional. But I went to Portland with my family. I kind of kept my competitive spirit going by going to the Trail Blazers game.”
Earl went on to tell reporters that he was just trying to keep his mind right before finally reuniting with his team on the practice field this Wednesday.
“It was just, you know, trying to find a way to keep my mind positive,” he said. “I knew I was trying to make it back for this week…so it helps to be back out there. Was just definitely just weird for me to see the team out there without me. I know it’s not all about me, but I’m a part of the team, so it was definitely weird to see that.”
Seattle is expected to get a boost on defense this week as many key players that have missed time with injuries have a shot at playing this week, along with ET. Defensive coordinator Kris Richard indicated Thursday that he expects defensive lineman Michael Bennett and cornerback DeShawn Shead to return to action against the Panthers this week as well.
“It would be huge,” Richard Sherman said after practice of getting Bennett back after he missed the last five games with a knee injury. “Not only Michael Bennett, but certainly looking at Earl Thomas, DeShawn Shead and Mike Morgan. It’s how we started the season. So it will be good to get everybody back as a whole.”
The matchup is also a matter of familiarity for both sides. Sunday’s game will mark the seventh between the two teams since the start of the 2012 season. Seattle and Carolina have met at least once a year every season over the last four, including two playoff matchups. The Seahawks came out on top in the first four of those six meetings, but the Panthers got the best of Seattle in both of last year’s matchups, including a 31-24 win in the divisional round of last year’s playoffs.
However the defending NFC Champion Panthers have had an up-and-down 2016 campaign compared to last year when they finished the regular season with a 15-1 record, and rolled to the Super Bowl. They enter Sunday’s game at 4-7, last in the NFC South and a longshot for a repeat playoff run.
Still, despite their struggles at times this season, the Carolina offense will present a difficult task for Earl and the Seattle defense. Headlined by the reigning MVP quarterback Cam Newton, the Panthers offense has the weapons to make life difficult for their opposition. They feature a talented group of pass catchers that might also be one of the tallest units in the league.
On the outside, Carolina has 6-foot-5 Kelvin Benjamin and 6-foot-4 Devin Funchess, who give the Cats a size advantage over most defensive backs. Both Panthers playmakers will be tough covers for No. 29 and Co. but the speedy deep-threat Ted Ginn Jr. has the ability to take the top of off a defense as well.
The Hawks will also have to account for Carolina’s always consistent tight end Greg Olsen. The tight end has racked up an impressive 790 receiving yards and three touchdowns on 58 catches this season. Fellow veteran, running back Jonathan Stewart, has come into form of late and has rushed for three touchdowns in the last two games.
The talented group of playmakers will be a big test for Earl as he makes his first return from injury since his days back at West Orange-Stark High School. But ET III is looking forward to getting back on the field and setting a pace for the rest of the season.
“I’m just still battling right now. I really don’t like to talk about it because I know what’s ahead of me (playing the rest of this season),” Thomas said. “Hopefully, you know, we’ll see.”
The Sunday night tilt between Seattle and Carolina is slated to kick off at 5:30 p.m. PT from CenturyLink Field and will be aired nationally on NBC.