All eyes were on Embry Thomas as he back-peddled, flipped his hips and stepped onto the edge of the Rams with Odell Beckham Jr.
Thomas had his eye on football.
“I just had to do my job: see the ball, get the ball,” Thomas, a once-forgotten rookie, said after a 49-playoff-clinching 27-24 overtime win over the hosts Los Angeles Rams.
As Thomas worked his coverage to perfection, he caught the attention of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as his eyes were fixed on a locker room television. Once Thomas leapt for the 49ers’ biggest interception, Tom Brady held his head over his head with incredible joy (see: the 2001 Super Bowl) and high-fives a Bux teammate.
This secured the NFC’s No. 2 seed for the Bucks, No. 4 seed for the Rams, and a wild-card berth to the 49ers, where, as the No. 6 seed, they would visit the No. 3 Dallas Cowboys. Sunday.
“It was wonderful how quickly Embry read the ball into the air,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said on a media call on Monday. “He was able to react much faster to it than the receiver and to end the game.”
What made Thomas an unlikely hero—after several offensive heroes like Jimmy Garoppolo, Deebo Samuel, and John Jennings—was the humble, elusive start of his NFL career.
Thomas played only 20 snaps in victories over the Lions (Week 1) and Jaguars (Week 11) before joining the starting lineup, where he made Sunday’s fifth start – and leading to the first career interception.
“I think his greatest asset in his moment of truth is chivalry,” general manager John Lynch said on April 30 when Thomas was drafted into the third round.
“When that ball is in the air, he has the ability to find it, which isn’t as easy to find as you might think for a DB,” said Lynch, a Pro Football Hall of Fame safety. “There’s a reason they’re playing defense, as they say. Embry has great skill when the ball is in the air.”
With 1:52 remaining in overtime, Thomas barely landed on the 20-yard line with Matthew Stafford’s final lap, 49 yards in the air.
“Ambry was perfect,” Shanahan said. “He was on top the whole time. Stafford looked like he threw it to give Odell a chance.”
Inside the final minute of the third quarter, fellow starting cornerback Emmanuel Moseley stopped Stafford, who was also a 49-yard bomber. Shanahan didn’t understand things when he called both interceptions “huge,” and praised Moseley’s ability to catch the ball and track it despite being out with a high-ankle sprain last month.
Such ball-hawking skills are rare this season among the 49’s defensive backs, who received 21 pass-interferences and five holding penalties, with Thomas responsible for only one of the latter. The 49ers made a total of nine interceptions in the regular season, including one each from Thomas, Moseley, Ke’von Williams and ousted starter Josh Norman.
“After the game at Green Bay (Week 3), we saw a lot of teams throw the ball up and expect the PI or the boy to come down with the ball,” Thomas said. “We always work in practice to get to the ball.”
He can bet on the Cowboys Dak Prescott trying the same strategy, targeting CeeDee Lamb, Amari Cooper and Cedric Wilson Jr.
Thomas’ mindset: Have a short memory – good game, bad game, next game.
“Everyone wants to talk about corners, but when the ball is in the air, you see it on your man,” Thomas said. “It’s a challenge. My hat is on to the cornerback who plays at a really high level.”
Former 49ers cornerback Eric Davis — a hero in the team’s 1994 NFC Championship win against Dallas — was pleased to hear Thomas sound so humble after Sunday’s game. Earlier this season, Davis encouraged Thomas to let him know that he was on the right track.
Davies said in a phone call, “I reached out to him and told him what Bubba Paris told me as a rookie: Whatever they write about you, unless it’s great, don’t worry.” But don’t believe it, and that what you’re doing is hard.” Interview Monday. “You can go from hero to goat, and you can go from goat to hero in one stroke. That’s a corner life.”
Lynch credited the 49ers’ discovery of Thomas to assistant general manager Adam Peters, on draft day, who gave Thomas a bear hug when he greeted Lynch outside the locker room on Sunday.
Thomas, the number 102nd draft pick, was a COVID opt-out in his fourth year at Michigan. He described riding on the bench most of his rookie year as “challenging” but is “grateful” for making him practice hard. After a recent rehearsal, he intercepted one period after another, gaining the approval of a visible Lynch.
After Sunday’s game, Shanahan was blunt in saying he wouldn’t believe Thomas was capable of such late heroes, given the way his rookie year began, adding: “It feels harsh. But it’s not. It’s a big compliment.”
“I watch him grow. He’s making mistakes but learning,” Davis said. “He’s doing things that coaches are qualified to do. He is not devoid of talent. And once you’re in the position, it’s all about pretending.
“The NFL is not going to be huge for him.”
Shanahan expects left tackle Trent Williams to return this week, as he took “as far as he could” before being scratched from Sunday’s lineup with an elbow injury.
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo (thumb) and running back Eliza Mitchell (knee) suffered no setbacks and will be limited in practice as of last week. Nickel back K’Vaughn Williams is expected to practice on Wednesday. Linebacker Aziz Al-Shair (knee) and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst (calf) are in the “probably” stage.
There were no long-term injuries in the win, although safety worth watching are Jakiski Tart (groin) and Talanoa Hufanga (burning knee), and punter Mitch Wishnowski (concussion).
Shanahan is not yet aware of any teams that are requesting interviews for opening coach and general manager, although he praised coordinators Demeco Ryan and Mike McDaniel, plus personnel officers Adam Peters and Ryan Carthon.
latest COVID cases
In accordance with NFL protocol, rookie DeModor Lenore was activated from the COVID reserve list after spending five days. Three warm-blooded players were added to it: fullback Josh Hockitt, quarterback Tyler Bray and cornerback Luc Barku. 3 quarterback in practice two weeks ago, while Jimmy Garoppolo rested his sprained thumb.