BALTIMORE -- Even in this age of specialization and situational substitution, there's a place in the NFL for versatility, as Kordell Stewart and all the other "Slash''-type talents who have followed in his footsteps have proven in the past dozen seasons or so.
But there's nobody in the league today capable of matching slashes with Baltimore's Adalius Thomas, who quite literally plays all over the field for the Ravens' defense. Linebacker, defensive line, cornerback, safety -- Thomas does it all. And the fact that he does it at 6-foot-2, 270 pounds, with 4.5 speed, makes him unique in the game.
Name me another player who last season had more than 100 tackles, nine quarterback sacks, nine passes defensed, three defensive touchdowns and occasionally drew Bengals Pro Bowl receiver Chad Johnson in man coverage. Thomas played every defensive position on the field at some point in 2005, and the Ravens have the game film to prove it. And he's at it again this season, totaling three sacks, one interception and a pass defensed for a Baltimore defense that is allowing an averaging of less than seven points per week.
"He's the best story in football right now,'' said Ravens head coach Brian Billick of Thomas, who remains Baltimore's best special-teams performer as well. "He's a unique athlete with what he's able to do. He lines up all over the field, and it confuses the [crap] out of people.''
Thomas is listed as Baltimore's starting strong-side linebacker on the depth chart, but that's merely one of his mid-game addresses, depending on the opponent and the defensive package the Ravens are featuring that day. He's just as likely to be dropping back into coverage at safety, or at any of Baltimore's four defensive-line positions. At certain times he's even matched up against a team's top receiver at "squat'' cornerback, shadowing his man in coverage for 12 yards or so in a Cover-2 formation, with help from a Ravens safety over the top once the receiver leaves his territory.
"We can show you a film cut-up where he's playing everything,'' Ravens defensive coordinator Rex Ryan said. "He's an athletic freak. Even though he's really a linebacker, you can do special things with him, and teams realistically have to prepare for him being anywhere.''
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and that's how Thomas developed his versatile role last season. When safeties Ed Reed and Will Demps were injured for the Ravens' second game against Pittsburgh, in Week 11, Ryan decided to line Thomas up at strong safety, providing muscle for Baltimore's run defense. The Ravens won that day, 16-13 in overtime, and the team's "Steelers package'' was born.
"I knew he was smart and I knew from an athletic standpoint we had a lot of confidence in him,'' Ryan said. "He just gives you a physical presence at the safety spot. You've got people who want to crack on him [with receivers] in run defense; it was like, 'Well, go ahead and crack on that guy.' We think we have a mismatch when he's in the game.''