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One big piece in the puzzle
Before last season, the last time the Seahawks had ranked among the NFL’s Top 10 defenses was in 1997.
Alan Branch had just turned 13, and had yet to become an all-state player at Cibola High School in Rio Rancho, N.M. But the now 6-foot-6, 325-pound Branch is as good a place as any to start with examining just how this defense was put together and then came together to rank ninth in the league in 2011.
Branch was a free-agent addition last year, when cornerback Brandon Browner was signed to a future contract after playing four seasons in the CFL and strong safety Kam Chancellor was elevated to the starting lineup after being a situational player as a rookie. During the season, linebacker K.J. Wright and cornerback Richard Sherman – a couple of rookies – were added to the mix. This year, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner, rush-end Bruce Irvin and situational safety Winston Guy were acquired in the draft; while pass-rushing lineman Jason Jones was signed in free agency.
Add all this to the holdovers – free safety Earl Thomas, linebacker Leroy Hill, nose tackle Brandon Mebane, starting-corner-turned-nickel-back Marcus Trufant and the odd-couple that is Red Bryant and Chris Clemons at the ends – and it creates a unit that is capable of even more this season.
“The coaches definitely knew what they were doing when they put this defense together,” Branch said Wednesday, after the second practice in the team’s three-day minicamp. “When they put us all together they had a good thought of what can happen, and they kind of got a glimpse of that last season.”
Did they ever. In addition to that No. 9 ranking – only the sixth time in franchise history that the Seahawks have fielded a Top 10 unit – the defense also ranked No. 7 in average points allowed. Thomas was voted to the Pro Bowl and Brandon and Chancellor joined him as injury-replacement alternates. Browner (two) and Bryant returned interceptions for touchdowns; while Browner (six), Sherman (four) and Chancellor (four) combined for 14 of the team’s 22 picks. After years of talking about playing more aggressively, the Seahawks actually went out and did it.
It wasn’t by accident, and luck had little to do with it – unless you count “hitting” on Browner and Sherman, and the decision to move little-used tackle Bryant to end.
The Seahawks’ odd-looking assortment of defensive players proved to be just the right combination.
“Honestly, when you think of defensive players, you never know what to expect,” Branch said. “They could be a bunch of small guys that just fly around and hit like crazy. Or they could be a bunch of big fellas that stop the run and then the guys on the back end know how to stop the pass.”
With the Seahawks, it’s equal parts of both – just not at the spots where you would expect it.
“Right now, we’ve just got an aggressive group and the coaches just like the way we’re playing right now,” Branch said.
Which is: With so much confidence that there’s even a little swagger involved.
“This is a great thing for me,” Branch said. “I’m an aggressive player, so it fits perfectly with my style. I like to get back there and disrupt the plays and help the linebackers know where the ball is going for sure.
“A lot of times if you don’t get in that gap, the linebackers have to sit back there and they’re not able to shoot the gun. I like to give them a chance to shoot that gun, so we can both celebrate.”
Branch isn’t just big, he’s a big part of the Seahawks’ defensive success.
“Alan Branch brings another dimension to the defense,” Bryant said. “He’s big, but he’s very athletic. For a guy that big, he actually does a great job of penetrating. He eats up a lot of blocks. We know on this defense what he brings.
“We’re in a good situation. I feel privileged to be on a defense that’s this deep, with multiple dimensions.”
So does Branch, who played his first four NFL seasons with the Arizona Cardinals.
“Everybody’s more so on the same page than they were at the beginning of last year,” he said.
“So when you say coming together, we’re coming together again. It’s the second coming.”