A rookie return to remember

Earl Thomas’ interception of a deflected Brett Favre pass on Saturday night was impressive enough, but what followed showed why the Seahawks selected him in the first round of the NFL draft.

Brett Favre took a three-step drop, as he has umpteen times in his Hall of Fame career, and unleashed one of his laser passes to Bernard Berrian.

The ball and Josh Wilson arrived at Berrian simultaneously, causing the pass to pop toward the circus-tent top of the Metrodome on Saturday night.  Earl Thomas then slapped an explosive exclamation point on the bang-bang play by picking off the carom and returning it 86 yards for the Seahawks’ only touchdown in their 24-13 preseason loss to the Minnesota Vikings.

Thomas’ head-up play in the second quarter was impressive enough. The speed he displayed on the return, however, was truly boggling. The rookie free safety had two blockers in front of him as he headed up the sideline, but Thomas blew past defensive ends E.J. Wilson and Dexter Davis – two more members of the Seahawks’ impressive 2010 rookie class – like they were just standing there watching him.

Which, of course, they almost were as his No. 29 grew smaller the closer he got to the end zone.

Lawyer Milloy has done a lot in his 15th-season NFL career – and seen even more. But the veteran strong safety is sure he’s never witnessed a return like the one Thomas turned in.

“Negative,” Milloy said in the locker room after the game when asked if he’d ever seen anyone run that fast while returning an interception.

“Earl has something that you really can’t coach – that speed.”

Just how fast is Thomas, the 5-foot-10, 202-pounder who the Seahawks selected in April with the 14th pick in NFL draft? He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds at his Pro Day workout at Texas and one pre-draft scouting report referred to his “great straight-line speed.”

But Saturday night, on that TD return, Thomas was running away from other very-fast players. At one point, everything seemed to go Matrix. As fast as Thomas was running, he seemed to be the only thing in focus and everyone around him was blurry.

“I just get the ball and go. I don’t know, I’m pretty fast,” Thomas said, unable to hold back a huge smile, when asked just how fast he is. “I was just gone. I just threw my head back. It was sort of like Pop Warner, when you throw your head back and just run.”

But there is more to Thomas’ game than his speed. Against the Vikings, he also had a big hit on Vikings wide receiver Percy Harvin to break up a pass in the third quarter and forced a play that led to defensive end Chris Clemonsstopping running back Adrian Peterson for a 1-yard loss in the second quarter.

“The one thing I like about Earl, he has an attitude, too,” Milloy said. “He definitely has the potential to be very good, very special in this league if he does the right things.”

As soon as Thomas got his hands on the ball, he realized scoring was not out of the question because, as he said, “I caught it in stride, so I knew I had a chance to get in the end zone.”

The big play Thomas made against the Vikings followed the big one he gave up the week before in the preseason game against Green Bay at Qwest Field – Aaron Rodgers’ 56-yard completion to Greg Jennings on the Packers’ first play. It was the first time Thomas could remember being beaten over the top for a big play, and he didn’t care for how it felt.

“It’s a process; it’s a growing process,” Milloy said. “Sometimes you need a little failure to understand that you’ve got to go back to doing things right – the simply things. I like the way he responded today. You don’t have to go out there and try to make every play.”

When Thomas was down after the Packers’ game, Milloy was there to help pick him up. That’s one of the reasons Milloy, who will turn 37 in November, was re-signed in April. The coaches want him to mentor Thomas, and lead by example.

“Earl needed that. He needed today,” Milloy said. “Because the first two games, he was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got so much respect for that quarterback.’ I kept on telling him, ‘Hey look, it’s OK to be star struck for a minute. But when that whistle blows, out of respect you go give them your best.’

“And then you realize you belong in this league. That’s the reason why he needed today. Going against Brett Favre, the best quarterback possibly of all-time, and just treat it like it’s a normal situation. Not only for him, but for our whole team, that was a big point of emphasis through Pete (Carroll, the coach).”

While everyone will remember the TD return – which can be viewed here – there was a play Milloy will not let Thomas forget.

“Tell them about the one you dropped,” Milloy said, needling the rookie from the next cubicle in the locker room.

That would have been Favre’s pass in the first quarter that Thomas tipped but couldn’t control.

After laughing, Thomas offered, “That probably could have been my second touchdown of the night. But it didn’t happen for me.”

That’s OK. Thomas made enough things happen on this night.