Thomas' mind, versatility paying dividends

WESTMINSTER -- Adalius Thomas peered into the backfield, paying special attention to the quarterback's body language and eye movement. Retreating quickly into his coverage area, Thomas immediately identified the passing lanes and took disruptive action.

In a fast-twitch instant, Thomas broke cleanly on the football, batted it to himself in the air and maintained his body control to intercept the errant pass.

While the 4,500 fans attending Wednesday morning's practice in Westminster marveled at how quickly the versatile outside linebacker created a turnover and turned it into a touchdown, they might have missed something during the translation.

It's not just the obvious question: How does a 6-foot-2, 270-pound defender move with such athleticism?

It's the bigger-picture pondering: How does the cerebral linebacker set himself up for that play by managing to understand not just his assignment, but also all of his teammates' duties?

"It's the mental part that everybody underestimates and hardly anybody talks about," said Thomas, a once-unheralded sixth-round draft pick from Southern Mississippi in 2000. "Everybody says, ‘He's a physical guy, he's big, he can run.' Great, but a lot of guys are big and can run, but big and running in the wrong direction doesn't work.

"The biggest thing is being on the same page as the other guys, seeing what they are seeing. It's all about how fast I can process that information."

As evidenced by last season, extremely quickly.

Thomas registered a career-high 104 tackles, a team-high nine sacks and scored three touchdowns off turnovers while recovering four fumbles and forcing another three.

He played multiple different positions, including defensive end, defensive tackle both outside linebacker spots, safety and even cornerback.

"It's always a challenge to do something different that's outside of the realm," Thomas said. "I don't think there's anything I can't do physically. It just comes down to the mental part and preparation.

"You need communication skills to be a part of every single position group. It's about can you translate and go back and forth without hurting the team and putting anybody in jeopardy."

Thomas was seemingly everywhere at once last year, bullrushing offensive tackles that outweighed him by 70 to 80 pounds, or dropping back into coverage and matching elite receivers' short-area acceleration.

Teammates started calling Thomas the other defensive coordinator because of how well he understood defensive boss Rex Ryan's aggressive schemes.

"Anytime you're the jack of all trades, it's tough to get that recognition that probably you deserve," Ravens coach Brian Billick said. "The man has literally played every defensive position. That's unique."

Yet, Thomas didn't make the Pro Bowl and has only been selected once, making it in 2003 as a special-teams ace as one of the biggest punt gunners in the league.

"For A.D. not to make it, they must not know what position he is," Ryan said. "He's a linebacker, but he can cover and do everything you can think of asking him to do. He's special."

No other Raven has ever scored three defensive touchdowns in a season, and it wasn't a flash in the pan deal.

In 2004, Thomas recorded 80 tackles and eight sacks along with an interception and four forced fumbles.

"A.D. moves so well and gives our defense so much added flexibility," linebacker Bart Scott said. "It's a lot of information for him to maintain, but he knows what everybody on the whole defense is doing and where to take his shots.

"He's made a lot of sacrifices, playing on special teams as an every-down linebacker. He's a first-class act."

To accelerate his learning curve, Thomas often consults other studious teammates like safety Ed Reed to learn all he can about their positions.

This added layer of knowledge pays dividends when he anticipates the offense's plans to either make the play himself or spill the play to a teammate in pursuit.

There are alignments where Thomas will play strong safety in a 4-4-3 scheme that allows Baltimore to shift defensive end Trevor Pryce inside to tackle with Dan Cody and Terrell Suggs playing with their hands down as rush ends on opposite sides of the line of scrimmage.

That leaves Thomas free to roam around the field as a glorified strong safety.

Often isolated against smaller skill players whom he outweighs by nearly 80 pounds, Thomas has a strict personal rulebook for keeping them from gaining separation.

"Against a smaller guy, you have to work hard at your technique and I don't ever want to get my shoulders opened or cross my feet over," Thomas said. "Those are the things that normally get you in trouble going against a guy that's quicker than you. It's the small things that count."

Thomas signed a relatively modest three-year contract extension with Baltimore in 2004 that included a $2.5 million signing bonus. His agent complained that teams had underrated or outright ignored his client's skills.

"You can only control what you do between those lines, but I'm sure all 32 teams know who I am now," Thomas said. "The contract will take care of itself. There's a time for play and there's a time for pay. This is a time for play.

"If it gets done, it gets done. If not, I'll be a free agent in March, we'll go through the same process and may the best team win."

Aaron Wilson writes for Ravens Insider and the Carroll County Times in Westminster Maryland.

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