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NFL Notes: Former Cardinal defensive stars making presence felt

While Arizona State ended Stanford football’s streak of consecutive games forcing a turnover at 37 during the Pac-12 championship, a number of Stanford alums in the NFL picked up right where the current Cardinal squad left off with several crucial takeaways.

San Diego linebacker Thomas Keiser ’11, who was promoted from the Chargers’ practice squad earlier in the season (and interviewed by The Daily), kicked off an eventful week for Stanford graduates in the NFL by picking off Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning in the fourth quarter of Thursday night’s clash between the Chargers and Broncos. Keiser’s interception, the first of his career, thwarted the Broncos’ momentum and helped the Chargers pull out a stunning 27-20 road victory. The three-year NFL veteran has enjoyed a breakout season with the Chargers, recording 20 tackles and 4½ sacks to date.

Keiser was not the only former Cardinal who started the season on a practice squad only to be signed by a team during the year and make a crucial late-game interception in Week 15. Making his NFL debut, Miami Dolphins safety Michael Thomas ’12 delivered on several plays to stop a furious fourth quarter rally by the New England Patriots.

Former Cardinal safety Michael Thomas (3) sealed the Dolphins crucial victory over the Patriots in his first NFL game by intercepting Tom Brady with one second remaining. (DON FERIA/isiphotos.com)

Former Cardinal safety Michael Thomas (3) sealed the Dolphins’ crucial victory over the Patriots in his first NFL game by intercepting Tom Brady with just a few seconds remaining in the fourth quarter. (DON FERIA/isiphotos.com)

Thomas, who was plucked away from the San Francisco 49ers’ practice squad just four days before Sunday’s game, was thrown into action at nickelback during the fourth quarter following injuries to a couple members of Miami’s secondary. Although Thomas had not taken a single snap in practice with the team and did not know the defensive play calls, he pried away a sure touchdown catch from receiver Danny Amendola in the end zone with under a minute remaining in the game. Three plays later with the ball on the Miami 14-yard line and only seven seconds left to play, Thomas intercepted quarterback Tom Brady in the end zone to cement the Dolphins’ 24-20 victory.

After the game, Thomas was in tears after seeing his dreams of playing in the NFL come to fruition.

“Being on the practice squad and stuff like that, all you can do is hope for that opportunity,” Thomas said. “You work for it and you hope for it. For it to actually come, it’s been a huge relief.”

Not wanting to miss out on the abundance of Stanford interceptions, Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman ’10 added two more on Sunday, picking off quarterback Eli Manning twice in the Seahawks’ 23-0 shutout of the New York Giants. The pair of interceptions brings Sherman’s total up to six for the year, tying him for most in the league.

In the same game, Seahawks’ receiver Doug Baldwin ’11 continued to add to his excellent season, grabbing six receptions for 71 yards and a touchdown to lead all Seattle receivers.  Baldwin now has 49 catches for 770 yards on the season.

While defense stole the show amongst Stanford players in the NFL, Baldwin and several other former Cardinal offensive standouts certainly had their fair share of big moments on Sunday. In keeping with the theme set by Keiser and Thomas, Indianapolis wide receiver Griff Whalen ’12, who was activated from the Colts’ practice squad earlier in the week, provided a huge jolt of energy to a struggling offense. After starting the season on the Colts’ active roster before being demoted to the practice squad in week four, Whalen made the most of his second opportunity with a 51-yard punt return and four receptions for 45 yards, including a 14-yard touchdown from quarterback Andrew Luck ’12 on the game’s opening drive. For his part, Luck finished 19 for 32 for 180 yards with two touchdowns and an interception in a dominant 25-3 win over the Houston Texans.

Whalen’s touchdown was the first of his young career as well as the first Colts’ touchdown in the first half since Oct. 20. Whalen’s performance earned him considerable praise from the Indianapolis coaching staff.

“Certainly Griff’s not one of those guys that would go in the tank, so to speak,” said Colts head coach Chuck Pagano. “He’s a grinder. He plays with a chip on his shoulder. He’s got something to prove, obviously.”

Sunday was also a memorable day for another one of Luck’s former favorite receiving targets: Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Chris Owusu ’12. Owusu accumulated 21 yards on three receptions and saw a significant increase in playing time from previous weeks.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz ’13, not to be outdone by his former teammates, reeled in a spectacular one-handed touchdown catch during the third quarter in the Eagles’ 48-30 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. While Ertz finished with 57 receiving yards on a career-high six receptions, his touchdown reception, where he snagged the ball with one hand while staying in bounds in the corner of the end zone, stole the show and trended on Twitter hours after the game.

***

In other news, numerous sources have indicated that the Houston Texans, who fired head coach Gary Kubiak midway through the season, are very interested in potentially hiring Stanford head coach David Shaw to fill their coaching vacancy. Shaw, who has eight years of NFL assistant coaching experience, is expected to be a trendy name in many coaching searches this offseason. Shaw has previously indicated that he has no intention of leaving Stanford in the near future.

Contact Vihan Lakshman at vihan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Vihan Lakshman

Vihan Lakshman is a desk editor and columnist for the Opinions Section. He also contributes to the Daily's coverage of Stanford football and baseball and has served as a broadcaster for women's soccer, men's basketball and baseball on KZSU. Vihan is a sophomore from Savannah, Ga. (currently undeclared). In his free time, he loves reading and playing just about any sport. To contact him, please email vihan@stanford.edu.
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