GREEN BAY — All summer the conversation in Green Bay revolved around Blake Martinez and Jake Ryan becoming the Packers’ one-two punch at inside linebacker.
On Sunday, however, Joe Thomas proved there’s a third head to this interior monster.
After it initially appeared the rookie Martinez would assume an every-down responsibility, Packers defensive coordinator Dom Capers deployed a familiar face at the core of his third-down defense with Thomas reprising his role as the dime linebacker.
Thomas, a former undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State, looked a year wiser and stronger during his 25 defensive snaps in Sunday’s 27-23 win over Jacksonville, while contributing on arguably the two biggest plays of the game for the defense.
The first came on the Jaguars’ opening series when Quinten Rollins batted up Blake Bortles’ pass intended for Marqise Lee, buying enough time for Thomas to race back and nab his first NFL interception after originally rushing on the play.
Thomas also was among the throng of Packers’ defenders who swarmed to tackle Jacksonville receiver Allen Hurns shy of the first down on fourth-and-1 to seal the Packers’ victory.
“I just anticipated with a year under his belt that Joe would take a step this year and I thought he got off to an excellent start,” said Capers of Thomas, who finished with two tackles. “Obviously when a guy has played for you for a year, you feel he’s going to be better than he was a year ago. You’re going to expect that.”
Thomas’ road to the NFL has been an arduous journey. He flashed early in camp two years ago before sustaining a knee injury that sidelined him for the first half of the season. He finished the year on the practice squad.
He failed to make the Packers’ 53-man roster at the start of the 2015 campaign and spent the first two weeks of the season on Dallas’ practice squad before Green Bay signed him to the active roster shortly after Sam Barrington was lost for the season to a foot injury.
Thomas recorded 26 tackles, one sack and a deflection in 14 regular-season games as the team’s dime linebacker, but wasn’t satisfied. He then added more muscle to his 6-foot-1 frame this offseason in an effort to cement and expand his role.
Thomas, who returned in the mid-230s at the start of training camp, finally succeeded this summer in making the Packers’ initial 53-man roster for the first time in three attempts.
Now, he hopes to solidify his role in the defense with more plays like his first-quarter interception against the Jaguars.
“Go after it,” said Thomas of his mentality on the interception. “The most important thing about football is the ball. So defensively you want to take the ball away and offensively you want to score.
“Turnovers inside their field position is big and we also set up our offense for a score, so it was huge.”
Thomas also was in on Clay Matthews’ first-quarter sack of Bortles for a 10-yard loss. While Matthews beat his man around the edge, Thomas flushed Bortles towards the Pro Bowl linebacker after bulldozing Jaguars running back Denard Robinson into Bortles.
How exactly did Thomas get Robinson off-balance? The linebacker isn’t tipping his hand.
“That’s my go-to move. I don’t want to put it out there for people to know,” said Thomas with a smile. “But when I’m on a (running) back, I feel like I can win most of the time and that’s what I did.”
The hot temperatures did little to affect the South Carolina native. In fact, Thomas felt he benefitted from the scorching conditions. Despite adding a fewer extra pounds this offseason, Thomas felt as explosive as ever.
“I feel like I could put on 10 more,” Thomas said. “That’ll be great.”