The youngest player on Seattle’s roster is often its last line of defense.
That makes free safety Earl Thomas a target in Sunday’s game against the San Diego Chargers, whose passing game is predicated on getting behind the defense.
“They’ve got a real style about them,” Seattle coach Pete Carroll said.
Deep drops and even deeper passes. It’s a super-sized passing game. Everything is big, from the arm of quarterback Philip Rivers to the Chargers’ playbook under Norv Turner to that 260-pound power forward of a tight end, Antonio Gates.
The Chargers averaged 8.7 yards per pass play last season, highest in the league. Now — even with receiver Vincent Jackson unsigned and not playing — San Diego ranks second, which brings us to Thomas, the safety Seattle selected to play center field in the first round of April’s draft.
Thomas, 21, has played well in his first two games. His 15 tackles lead the team, but he hasn’t had any chances to show off the range and instincts that made him the 14th pick of the draft. The Broncos and 49ers passed underneath the secondary, so Thomas hasn’t been tested. Not like he expects to be Sunday.
“I’ve got to come in the game with a different mindset,” Thomas said. “Because I really haven’t gotten challenged deep so far.”
Rivers has the arm to do it. Just ask those nine members of this year’s Seahawks who played against the Chargers back on Christmas Eve 2006. Seattle held a four-point lead into the final minute when Rivers threw a 37-yard touchdown pass to Jackson, who beat Seattle safety Michael Boulware deep.
San Diego’s passing game has only become more vertical since. Turner is in his fourth season as Chargers coach, and his offense fires from the hip.
“They’ll set deep in the pocket,” Carroll said. “They’ll play-action to get the quarterback a lot of depth to allow the receivers to get downfield.
“They know that they have to protect longer than other teams, but man, they just believe in it and they have a great system and a great concept to get after you.”
Describing the offense is one thing, defending it another, and it requires making Rivers move.
“I know we can’t give him time,” Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “Because then he’s going to look over the whole field.”
In Week 1, the Seahawks pressured San Francisco’s Alex Smith as well as anyone could have hoped with two sacks and 11 quarterback hits. Last week in Denver, Seattle hit the Broncos’ Kyle Orton just once.
Defensive end Chris Clemons is Seattle’s quick-twitch rusher who lines up opposite the left tackle while strongside linebacker Aaron Curry is featured as a pass rusher when Seattle switches to a nickel package.
But no pass rush can prevent every opportunity, and there are going to be times San Diego is going to test the Seahawks and their rookie safety.
Thomas was picked to be a playmaker, and he’s going to have an opportunity against San Diego.
“They’re trying to challenge you down the field, trying to get big plays,” Bradley said, turning his attention to Thomas. “It will be a good game for him. I know he’s excited about it.”