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Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Ambry Thomas makes a believer out of Shanahan, 49ers Faithful with game-sealing interception

Jan 9, 2022 at 7:32 PM--

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The San Francisco 49ers had a long list of unexpected heroes in their 27-24 overtime win over the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday, but none of them made for a better feel-good story than rookie cornerback Ambry Thomas.

A third-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft out of the University of Michigan, Thomas has come a long way in a short time for the 49ers after being used sparingly earlier in the year. Thomas was inactive for much of the first half of the season and only saw 20 total snaps on defense before Week 14, then was eventually pressed into action due to injuries and entered the starting lineup against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 14. He had some struggles at first, but Thomas eventually came into his own and has been a significant contributor on defense ever since.

And on Sunday, he made his biggest contribution yet—a game-sealing interception against the Rams that helped secure a playoff berth and will go down as one of the biggest plays of the year for the 49ers.

The play came just after the two-minute warning when Rams quarterback Matthew Stafford threw deep downfield in an attempt to connect with wide receiver Odell Beckham. Thomas was running step for step with Beckham, then adjusted to make a play on the ball and snag the interception, which was the first of his NFL career.

"We were in a Cover 3," Thomas said after the game. "I just played my responsibility. I knew I had to stay on top of Odell. He was the only threat I had to my side. So three deep, just had to do my job, see the ball, go get the ball."

The interception capped an improbable comeback for the 49ers, who were down 17-0 in the second quarter before rallying to tie the game in the second half, then were down 24-17 late in the fourth quarter before sending the game to overtime on a last-minute touchdown drive.

"It felt great," Thomas said. "I'm just happy we're fortunate enough to go to the playoffs. We were down bad the first half, but we fought back into it. I'm just really happy we're in the dance now. That's all that matters."

No one would have expected Thomas to be in this position earlier in the season—not even head coach Kyle Shanahan. But, as it turned out, Thomas just needed time to adjust and develop. And once he got his opportunity, Thomas made the most of it.

"Ambry, he's definitely made a believer out of me in the second half of the season," Shanahan said Sunday. "I would not have believed he could have with how it started off. That sounds kind of harsh, but it's not. It's a huge compliment. It took him some time, but when he got his opportunity, which was from injuries, he was ready. And he competed and he just showed a lot what's in him. Watching him these last five games, I feel like I know the guy a lot better than before, and he's shown us that he's someone we can count on. I think he's going to do the right stuff and continue to get better."

Thomas never gave up on himself, even when others started to wonder if the 49ers might have reached with their third round pick. He was at a disadvantage earlier in the year after choosing to sit out the 2020 season rather than play while so many uncertainties existed surrounding COVID-19, but once he got his mind right, Thomas began to emerge.

"I knew for sure," Thomas said. "I just had to get back in football mode. A lot of people didn't know I was out of football for a year. Once I mentally got back into football mode, I knew it was going to be over because I know what type of person I am."

Thomas singled out a certain moment earlier in the season where he knew he'd gotten his mojo back, thanks in part to some recognition from general manager John Lynch.

"I forgot which week it was, but I had two picks in back-to-back periods in practice," Thomas said. "John Lynch kind of looked at me and nodded, 'Yeah, keep on going.' So I'm like, 'Yeah, I'm here. I'm here.'"

The future now looks much brighter for Thomas than it did earlier in the season. It wasn't easy for him to sit on the sidelines during the first half of the year, but now he's become an important piece of the secondary as the playoffs arrive and may well be moving in the direction of being a long-term answer for the 49ers at the cornerback position.

"It was pretty challenging just to be inactive all those games and still have to keep my mind on football and watch my guys play on Sundays and I'm not," Thomas said. "It was very challenging, but that just made me work harder every time we practiced. So, I'm grateful for that honestly because that brought me up."

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