For a big-play linebacker, Adalius Thomas doesn't have many big plays this season. He has just one sack and one pass break-up through five games, a far cry from the 11 sacks he had in his final season with the Ravens or the 11.5 combined sacks he had in his first two seasons with the Patriots.
Thomas' deactivation against the Titans on Sunday stunned most fans and analysts -- and it stunned him, too. The two-time Pro Bowler had been seen as a cornerstone of the Patriots' defense and not the type of player who ever would be deactivated for a reason not related to an injury.
But the Patriots had to employ a certain type of game plan against the Titans, and Thomas didn't quite fit into it. That game plan? Prevent running back Chris Johnson from getting to the edge.
Thomas has been playing out of position for much of the season. The retirement of Tedy Bruschi and the injury to Jerod Mayo created a void at middle linebacker, and as one of the best linebackers left on the roster, Thomas moved inside and played quite a few September snaps alongside Gary Guyton in the middle.
That, though, didn't seem to work for him. He didn't spend much time rushing the passer, instead frequently lining up across from tight ends or defending against the run in the middle of the field. He seemed to do OK in pass coverage but struggled at times against the run in Denver, missing some key tackles in a game the Patriots eventually lost.
He spent almost an entire possession on the sideline, watching as journeyman Rob Ninkovich had a sack and a hurry on the Broncos' longest drive of the first half. Even when he was in there, though, he missed an open-field tackle on wide receiver Brandon Marshall and found himself blocked out of the play by just about any body the Broncos put in front of him.
That wasn't going to work against Tennessee.
The Chris Johnson-led Titans have been a running team all season. They've actually averaged as many yards per rush (5.3) as they have per pass attempt, something that's not easy to do in a quarterbacks' league. Entering play Sunday, they ranked eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game (127.6) but 21st in passing yards per game (208.2). Kerry Collins might get most of the publicity, but it's Johnson's speed around the edge that defenses worry about most.
That seems to be why, even though the Patriots returned to the 3-4 base defense for which they're best known, Thomas didn't quite fit. Derrick Burgess played almost every defensive snap in the first half with Tully Banta-Cain, Pierre Woods and Rob Ninkovich rotating in opposite him -- and all four seemed to focus almost exclusively on run contain.
The Patriots sent five defenders across the line of scrimmage on just about every snap, but the two outside linebackers didn't usually go after Collins. They usually got upfield as quickly as they could to take away the outside running game from Johnson:
That's not Thomas' game. Against Denver, in fact, Thomas had quite a bit of trouble trying to corral opposing running backs no matter where he lined up.
Be it because of his lack of production or a message-necessitating lack of effort, the Patriots made the decision that sitting Thomas against a run-heavy team gave them a better chance to win.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, for what it's worth, are equally woeful running the ball and passing the ball. Quarterback Josh Johnson has a tendency to scramble out of the pocket, and he's been sacked 10 times in his three starts this season.
If the Patriots believe they can give Johnson trouble by getting in his face, well, you'll probably see Thomas active and on the outside of a 3-4 defense just like you did last season and the season before that.