Sports

Super Bowl-bound Seahawks defense keeps it basic

Seattle defenders Byron Maxwell (41), Richard Sherman (center) and Earl Thomas go flying as they collide with each other in the end zone to break up a pass. - Jennifer Buchanan, The Herald
Seattle defenders Byron Maxwell (41), Richard Sherman (center) and Earl Thomas go flying as they collide with each other in the end zone to break up a pass.
— image credit: Jennifer Buchanan, The Herald

After watching his team’s season come to an end in Seattle, New Orleans Saints coach Sean Payton gave a variation of the same description most opposing coaches use when it comes to the Seahawks defense.

“Seattle was playing their defense,” Payton said. “One of the things they do a very good job with, is they don’t do a lot.”

They don’t do a lot.

Taken out of context, that could almost seem insulting, but in fact it is one of the highest compliments you can pay Seattle’s defense.

The Seahawks aren’t just the NFL’s best defense, they are also in a lot of ways one of the more predictable. More often than not on passing plays, Earl Thomas is going to be the deep safety taking away the middle of the field, Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell will handle the sidelines, and Kam Chancellor and the linebackers deal with the underneath routes. You’re most likely going to see Seattle in man-to-man coverage, or playing a cover-three zone, and it’s not catching anyone off guard, yet it’s still almost unbeatable.

“One of the things that we like to do is, ‘All right. Can they deal with us and the way that we play and the style that we play?’” defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said. “So although it isn’t lot of different things, we just try to play it in it our style really, really hard.”

Like any team, the Seahawks will vary the amount of pressure they bring, but the Seahawks will never be a blitz-happy team, nor are they like Rob Ryan’s Saints defense that mixes things up from week-to-week trying to out-scheme an opponent.

The Seahawks defense essentially says: this is who we are, try to beat us. It’s simple, yet wildly effective, with the Seahawks allowing the fewest yards, points and passing yards this season while also forcing the most turnovers.

“People know what they’re going to get, but the thing we say on our defense is, ‘know your role, then do it well,’” Chancellor said. “Everybody has a role, and we try to master our role.”

Chancellor is one of three members of Seattle’s secondary to earn Pro Bowl and All-Pro honors this season, which gets to one very significant point about Seattle’s defense — it might not do a lot, but that doesn’t make it easy to beat, or to replicate. The reason some teams try to scheme differently from game to game is that most teams don’t have Seattle’s talent. Chancellor can get away with playing near the line of scrimmage to help against the run or take away underneath routes because Thomas covers so much ground as a single-high safety. And the Seahawks are just fine frequently leaving their cornerbacks on an island because Sherman and Maxwell, as well as Walter Thurmond and Jeremy Lane, have exceptional coverage skills and understand how paramount avoiding big plays is to Pete Carroll.

“It depends on the personnel that you have and how much you can stick to that,” Carroll said. “That’s what you always hope to do. I think everybody in coaching would like to just get in your base defense and dig in and do it really well. We’ve been able to grow more towards that as our corner play has been such a factor and the back end has been such a factor with Earl Thomas back there.

“It’s allowed us to really zero in on what we’re doing up front, and we’ve gotten better with a really young bunch of guys. It’s helped them be more consistent. The factor that Red Bryant plays, the factor that the Leo (defensive end) position plays in our scheme with Bruce (Irvin) playing outside, it gives us a lot of elements that are still problematic. Kam Chancellor is such a stud on the tight end side and all of that, and (that) gives us elements where we can kind of hang in there and make them try to knock us out. We vary more than that when we need to, but when we don’t have to we don’t.”

And sure, the Seahawks will shake things up from time to time — they trust their defense, but that doesn’t make them stubborn to the point of losing games in the name of pride — doing things like using Sherman in the slot at times to match up with a player like San Francisco’s Anquan Boldin or New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham.

But for the most part, the Seahawks are going to trust everyone involved to simply do their jobs. That’s why Seattle was able to hold Graham to one catch for 8 yards this past Saturday with a bevy of players covering the All-Pro, none of whom were the injured K.J. Wright, who frequently covered Graham in the teams previous meeting. Sometimes it was Chancellor on Graham, other times it was Sherman or Thomas or Malcolm Smith, but whoever it was, the NFL’s most prolific tight end wasn’t able to do any damage.

“Just being normal,” Thomas said when asked how they contained Graham. “In the first game, everybody thought it was a big mystery how we’re going to do it. We’re not going to change for anybody. We have a great scheme here in Seattle. The great thing about us, we practice hard and pay attention to details, and it always pays off for us in the game.”

Seattle’s defense isn’t exactly the same this year under Quinn; he’s a bit more aggressive than Gus Bradley was, bringing more pressure and using more man coverage, but in a lot of ways the principles are the same, and the results are even better.

Even when everyone knows what’s coming.

“Coach Quinn’s big motto is ‘they’re going to have to deal with us,’ and literally that’s all you have to do,” Sherman said. “You’re going to know exactly what call we’re in, you’re going to know exactly what defense we’re in.”

Sherman paused for a moment, then added, “And then we’re going to win.”

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