Posted: Wednesday November 22, 2006 10:26AM; Updated: Monday November 27, 2006 1:45PM
Adalius Thomas has a unique blend of speed and strength that allows him to play several positions for the Ravens.
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By Peter King, SI.com
Last November, when the Ravens and Bengals met in Baltimore, Cincinnati wideout Chad Johnson jogged out from the huddle, the only receiver split right in the formation. Johnson has seen a lot of strange sights on football fields, but none stranger than this. Walking up to cover him: 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive lineman Adalius Thomas. Not in double-coverage. Yes, there was a safety 12 yards behind Thomas, shading the center of the field. But make no mistake about it: Thomas, squatting there in bump position like Deion Sanders, was going to cover a Pro Bowl wide receiver.
"What the hell's your fat ass doing out here?" Johnson asked.
Thomas can turn and run with a receiver and not be embarrassed; he runs a safety-like 4.53 in the 40-yard dash. But that's not why he was man-to-man on Johnson. Before the game, Baltimore defensive coordinator Rex Ryan told Thomas he'd probably be lined up on the shifty Johnson once or twice when the Ravens thought that quarterback Carson Palmer would be looking for him.
"Knock him into the Gatorade," Ryan said. "That's your job."
As the ball was snapped, Johnson tried a little shake-and-bake move to leave Thomas in the dust. Thomas, Alabama's prep basketball player of the year 10 years ago, moved like the small forward he once was, getting his hands on Johnson a yard off the line, pushing him sideways for eight yards. If there had been Gatorade three yards off the sideline, Johnson would have been knocked into it.
Last month, Ryan, sitting at the desk in his darkened bat cave of an office outside Baltimore, chuckled with pride as he watched the Johnson play on his big digital-video screen. "Look!" he yelped. "He blocks him right into the Gatorade, just like he was supposed to!"
Ryan showed more plays from 2005, when Thomas became the NFL's most versatile player. At right end against Pittsburgh, he dropped into coverage on a zone blitz and picked off a Ben Roethlisberger pass. At defensive tackle against Cleveland, he muscled through the line to sack Trent Dilfer. At strongside linebacker against Houston, he came in unblocked to sack David Carr. As a Carr-spying, line-roving defensive lineman in the same game, he mirrored Carr's movements and was in the right place at the right time to collect a deflected pass and return it for a touchdown. At middle linebacker against Minnesota, he fought through traffic at the line and chased Brad Johnson from behind, forcing a fumble that ensured a Ravens win. At weakside linebacker against Green Bay, he rushed in a bunch package from the left, recovered an Aaron Rodgers fumble and ran it in for a touchdown. Also in that game, he had three havoc-wreaking plays at strong safety.
A 270-pound man with safety speed and a running start who moves well laterally ... well, it's a weapon Ryan has never had before. "There's nobody in the league like him," said Ryan. "We're not doing this to say to everyone in the NFL, 'Hey, look how smart we are.' We're doing it because he's a destructive force no matter where we put him, and he handles every job we give him so well. It's amazing to me he's still so far under the radar."
That happens when you play on the same defense with all-world players such as linebacker Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, enter the league as a sixth-round pick, and don't have one position to call home. Thomas has played end, tackle, all three linebacker spots, cornerback and strong safety in the same game several times since Ryan began deploying him all over the defense when Lewis and Reed simultaneously missed five games with injuries last year.
"This sounds crazy," Ryan told his defensive staff last October, and then detailed to the coaches how wanted to use Thomas as a hybrid safety/linebacker (he called it "Steeler Backer" in the game plan before an Oct. 31 contest at Pittsburgh) to take advantage of the speed and physicality they were missing with Lewis and Reed out.
Necessity may have been the mother of invention for this back-to-the-NFL-in-the-'50s plan, but it's turned out to be brilliant. In the 20 games since Thomas began playing all over the defensive landscape, he has 119 tackles, 14 sacks, three interceptions (one returned for a touchdown), 10 pass deflections, three forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries (two returned for touchdowns). And if there was a category for defensive pressure that resulted in points, Thomas would be near the top of the league. Twice in the Ravens' 35-22 win at New Orleans that catapulted them on their current four-game winning streak, Thomas pressured Drew Brees into interceptions that were returned for Baltimore touchdowns. On the second one, with Thomas about to hit him in the chest, Brees threw a flutterball that safety Dawan Landry returned easily for a score. He's preventing points, and scoring them: Since midseason last year, he leads the league with three defensive touchdowns.
One more positional oddity: Not satisfied with playing seven defensive slots, Thomas has been lobbying coach Brian Billick to line up at tight end, one of the three positions he played in high school. "I'm thinking about it," Billick said earlier this season. "If we have an injury there, there's a chance I could do it."