GREEN BAY — All offseason, Joe Thomas was driven to prove he could be a three-down linebacker for the Green Bay Packers.
The former undrafted free agent out of South Carolina State earned a role in the Packers’ defense a year ago, handling the inside linebacker responsibilities in the dime package.
Thomas was grateful, but not satisfied. He trained with the goal of putting 10 pounds onto his frame to better equip himself for playing the run in first- and second-down situations.
It was a good thing he did. Although Thomas began the season again as the coverage linebacker, injuries at the position pushed him into the lineup twice as often as 2015.
In fact, no linebacker – inside or outside – played more defensive snaps than Thomas’ 632 in 2016. He turned that opportunity into 70 tackles, five pass deflections and an interception in 16 games with seven starts.
“I think you're just watching another young player take a step,” Packers Head Coach Mike McCarthy said. “Joe has probably taken two steps this year.”
The production surprised nobody in the Packers’ locker room, McCarthy included. Thomas made an impression the moment he signed with Green Bay as a college free agent in 2014.
Known as a tackling machine at South Carolina State, Thomas was in the running for a roster spot before suffering a knee injury in a preseason game against Tennessee. He later returned on the practice squad, where he finished his rookie year.
Thomas came up short in his quest for a roster spot in 2015 and landed on Dallas’ practice squad after final cuts. A few weeks later, the Packers signed him to the active roster after Sam Barrington was lost for the year to an ankle injury.
By year’s end, Thomas developed a niche as a coverage linebacker in third-down situations. Still, his hope was to eventually earn an every-down role like he had in college.
While the Packers started the season with Jake Ryan and Blake Martinez inside on early downs, the two missed a combined five games throughout the course of the year and were limited in a few other contests.
That opened a door for Thomas to show the coaching staff what he could do with a little heavier workload. It also give him a chance at more consistent playing time.
“Reps have allowed me to play a lot faster and I’m attacking more,” Thomas said. “Last year, I feel like I waited for things to come to me and now I’m attacking.”
Defensive coordinator Dom Capers and defensive back Micah Hyde have noticed the difference in Thomas’ game. His hard-nosed mindset always has been one of his best qualities, but it’s easy to tell Thomas is playing with greater confidence.
A good example of that came in the final moments of last Sunday’s 34-31 win over Dallas when Thomas broke up a third-down pass for Cowboys tight end Jason Witten to force a field goal.
Thomas also helped lend a hand to the NFL’s eighth-ranked run defense, registering 10 tackles against both Seattle and Minnesota during the Packers’ six-game winning streak to end the regular season.
“He’s a hitter,” defensive back Micah Hyde said. “People think he’s smaller in size so they can run all over him, but he’s not going to allow that. He can hit with the best of them and he’s very fast. He can cover tight ends, running backs when he needs to. He’s a great guy to have in our defense.”
Thomas likely will have a big role in Sunday’s NFC Championship Game in Atlanta. The Falcons possess a pair of dynamic running backs in Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, who combined for more than 2,500 total yards in 2016.
Freeman, a former fourth-round pick who has rushed for 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, tends to run more downhill, whereas Coleman likes to use his speed to get outside.
Both have been incredibly active in the Falcons’ third-ranked passing offense. Individually, Freeman (fifth) and Coleman (eighth) each finished inside the top 10 for most receiving yards among running backs. Together, they combined for 85 receptions for 883 yards and five touchdown catches.
Capers has used Thomas to match up against running backs throughout the year. The second-year linebacker has helped contain Minnesota’s Jerrick McKinnon, Detroit’s Theo Riddick and even Freeman, who was held to four catches for 23 yards in the first meeting with Green Bay in Week 8.
“I just think he’s more experienced in terms of gap fits and making the calls and all those things,” said Capers of Thomas. “It started with him playing in third down last year. Joe has done a nice job for us and he’s been a matchup guy for us. When you’re playing running backs like we’re going to see Sunday, Joe becomes very important to you.”
All Thomas wanted coming into the season was a chance to show he could be more than just a third-down player. The 6-foot-1, 227-pound linebacker expanded his role on defense over the course of the year en route to Sunday’s NFC title game.
“I’m just grateful for the opportunity, man,” Thomas said. “It’s very gratifying knowing that your hard work is paying off, everything you put in during the offseason has paid off. It’s an amazing feeling.”