The Detroit Lions are decidedly the underdogs in this weekend’s Wild Card round tilt against the Seattle Seahawks. Pete Carroll’s team is favored by eight points, and ostensibly, it makes sense: Detroit is traveling to CenturyLink Field where Seattle doesn’t do a whole lot of losing—the Seahawks were 7-1 at home this season. To add to that, not only did they almost have a perfect record at home this year, Seattle has won their last nine playoff games hosted at CenturyLink. Seattle is also a team with much more postseason experience than Detroit, looking to reach their their third Super Bowl in four seasons. Recent history is by no means on the Lions’ side.
It’s been well-documented up to this point how the Lions lost their final three games of the season and made the playoffs only because the Giants played all of their starters for some reason. Injuries apparently don’t scare Ben McAdoo, but Lions fans have bemoaned the injury bug. Injuries to the Lions offensive line, including the loss of starting C Travis Swanson for the past month and RT Riley Reiff last week, have caused some shuffling along the offense’s front line. In the NFL, injuries are a fact of life. Those teams that are best equipped with depth on their roster are those that are most capable of handling the attrition suffered over the course of a season. While the Lions have struggled with injuries, and continue to do so with Saturday looming, so too have the Seattle Seahawks.
The Lions’ struggles on offense as of late have caused many to wonder and posit that the ailing middle finger of Matthew Stafford’s throwing hand may be to blame. While the stats show one aspect, they don’t reveal an absolute truth. Seattle’s most significant injury is to the quarterback of their secondary, FS Earl Thomas.
Why Earl Thomas is a big deal
Earl Thomas, when healthy, is arguably the best free safety in all of football. He’s no slouch athletically, but what makes him truly special, and über important to the Seattle defense, is his range and instincts while patrolling the middle of the field.
Standing under six feet tall, his ability to squeeze the spaces where quarterbacks have to throw the football into is really unique. Add to all that his knack for finding the football when it’s up for grabs...
as you can see...
he’s pretty good at going and getting it. Since 2010, Thomas has 23 interceptions, the fifth most among all defensive backs over that seven year stretch. The only safety with more interceptions than Thomas is Reggie Nelson with 28—who led the league in 2015 with 8.
Why the Seahawks missing Earl Thomas is a big deal
Up until this season, his health has been one of his best attributes: Thomas hadn’t missed a game in his NFL career until a broken tibia in Week 14 landed him on season-ending IR. Without Thomas, the Seahawks defense just hasn’t been the same beast.
SEA w/ Earl Thomas on the field this year: Seven TDs, 10 picks, 77.8 passer rating— Bill Barnwell (@billbarnwell) January 4, 2017
SEA w/o Earl Thomas: 9 TDs, 1 INT, 99.5 passer rating
Clearly, according to the numbers, a Seahawks defense without Earl Thomas on the field isn’t as stifling to offenses. When No. 29 isn’t out there making quarterbacks second-guess when throwing downfield, the defense has been allowing more touchdowns while forcing less turnovers by way of interceptions.
If Football Outsiders’ DVOA statistic is more your cup of tea:
Seahawks pass defense ranked 30th (DVOA) since Week 12, a span in which Earl Thomas played one quarter. https://t.co/BA07jYEyCk— Sheil Kapadia (@SheilKapadia) January 4, 2017
The quarterbacks Seattle’s faced since Thomas’ injury have been a tieless Cam Newton, Derek Anderson, Aaron Rodgers, Jared Goff/Case Keenum, Carson Palmer and Colin Kaepernick. Five of those quarterbacks have quarterback ratings lower than 91.2—the league average. For what it’s worth, Matthew Stafford finished with a 93.3 quarterback rating.
Why missing Earl Thomas isn’t a big deal
I mentioned it earlier: the Seahawks have home-field advantage, a championship pedigree and the Lions just aren’t at full strength. While Seattle’s secondary has hit a bump in the road, keeping their front seven in check is going to be a tall order for the Lions offensive line. Stafford was sacked 37 times in the regular season, but over the Lions previous four games—all without Swanson—the offensive line allowed 10 of those sacks. The likes of Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark help make up what may be the best defensive front Detroit’s faced all year, and if the Lions are without Swanson and Reiff for a second week in a row, covering the middle of the field won’t be a primary concern for Seattle.