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Good, and only getting better

Posted Jan 11, 2012

As good as the Seahawks’ defense was during the 2011 season, coordinator Gus Bradley and coach Pete Carroll see even better things for this unit – and from this unit – in 2012.

Where to begin with just how good the Seahawks defense was during the 2011 season?

Where all the roads to improvement converged: At the unit’s No. 9 ranking in average yards allowed. The Seahawks last ranked among the Top 10 in the NFL in 1997, and had done it only five other times in franchise history (1984, 1990-92 and ’97).

And, they did it with first-year starters at strong safety (Kam Chancellor), cornerback (Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman), strongside linebacker (K.J. Wright) and defensive tackle (Alan Branch); and second-year starters at free safety (Earl Thomas) and the ends (Chris Clemons and Red Bryant).

That in itself is reason enough to believe the defense will only be better in 2012.

“There are so many positive things to look toward when you think of how young this team was and how much natural jump occurred between Year One and Year Two for the first-year guys,” coach Pete Carroll said.

Carroll need look no farther than Thomas to illustrate his point. Thomas started as a rookie, but we was voted the starting free safety on the NFC Pro Bowl squad in his second season.

“Earl had a very flashy first season and made a lot of big plays and picks (five) and things like that,” Carroll said of the player the team selected with the 14th pick overall in the 2010 NFL Draft. “But Earl played a tremendous football season this year.

FIST-BUMPS AND FOREHEAD SLAPS

Here’s a look at five things that went right for the Seahawks’ defense during the 2011 season and three things that need work as they head into the 2012 offseason:

FIST-BUMPS
One. No. 9. Not the song on the White Album, but the Seahawks’ overall ranking – only the sixth time in franchise history that the defense has ranked among the Top 10 in the league, and the first time since 1997. They allowed an average of 332.2 yards.
Two. The secondary. The first impulse here was to go with free safety Earl Thomas, because he is the first Seahawk to be voted to the Pro Bowl since 2008. But his unit also includes strong safety Kam Chancellor and cornerback Brandon Browner, first alternates to the NFL’s all-star game; as well as rookie cornerback Richard Sherman, who some feel was playing even better than Browner at the end of the season.
Three. Run defense. While the overall ranking against the run slipped from No. 7 after five games to No. 15 in the final listings, the per-carry average allowed of 3.8 yards tied for fourth-best in the league behind the 49ers and Ravens (3.5) and Dolphins (3.7).
Four. Turnovers. At midseason, the Seahawks had only 11 turnovers and were minus-5 in the take-away/give-away ratio. By season’s end, they had 31 turnovers and were plus-8. The only four teams with more turnovers all made the playoffs – the Packers and 49ers (38) and the Patriots and Lions (34). Talk about a turnover turnaround. That’s because they had 14 interceptions in the final eight games – as Browner finished with six and Sherman and Chancellor had four each. But don’t forget 330-pound end Red Bryant, who picked off two and ran one in for a touchdown.
Five. David Hawthorne. Despite playing on a sore knee that limited his practice time for much of the season, the middle linebacker became the sixth player in franchise history to lead the team in tackles for three consecutive seasons. And this season, Hawthorne had three interceptions and two sacks to go with his 115 tackles.
FOREHEAD SLAPS
One. Allowing 16 fourth-quarter points to the Redskins in Week 12. The Redskins came in averaging 16 points a game, but erased the Seahawks’ 17-7 lead by equaling that in the final 10 minutes of a 23-17 victory at CenturyLink Field. Making this forehead slapper a head-scratcher was the fact that it was wedged between back-to-back wins over the Ravens and Rams and a three-game winning streak.
Two. Allowing 16 second-half points to the 49ers in Week 16. The Seahawks had leads of 10-3 and 17-16 against the NFC West champions, but a TD run by Frank Gore and three field goals by David Akers gave the 49ers the win and dashed the Seahawks’ slim playoff hopes.
Three. Third downs. The Seahawks allowed seven opponents to covert at least 40 percent on the pivotal down and lost six of those games. But they also had a stretch of six games in the second half where they held opponents to 33-percent conversions or worse and they won four of them. So the real problem here obviously is consistency.

“He had a great season and the numbers don’t show it because you don’t see the picks (two). But his effort on what we’ve done and the effect of the guys on the back end in creating a defense has improved tremendously from one year to the next is kind of what I’m holding onto that we could see dramatic advances by a lot of guys.”

Not that there wasn’t enough improve in Carroll’s second season as coach: From 27th to ninth in overall defense, as they trimmed their average yards allowed from 368.6 in 2010 to 332.2; from 21st against the run to 15th, as the average rushing yards allowed dropped from 118.9 to 112.3; and from 27th against the pass to 11th, with the average passing yards allowed being sliced from 249.6 to 219.9.

Even more impressive – and important – was the defense allowing 28 touchdowns and 280 points, compared to 44 touchdowns and 386 points in 2010. That’s an improvement of 6.6 points per game.

“The guys really bought into it, and we really came together as a defense,” coordinator Gus Bradley said.

“Earlier in the season, we started off where guys felt like they understood it, but we weren’t really communicating real well on the field. It took us suffering a couple of lumps and bruises before we realized the importance of that. Then we just kept growing and growing and we gained more and more confidence. So I was very pleased with how the product came along.”

The Seahawks’ efforts against the run and against the pass where played out in two contrasting acts.

The run defense was suffocating in the five games, as opponents tried in vain to pound the ball up the gut against nose tackle Brandon Mebane, who led all NFC interior linemen with 56 tackles; Branch, Bryant, middle linebacker David Hawthorne and either Thomas or Chancellor in the box. The Seahawks were allowing averages of 97.8 yards per game and 3.1 yards per carry. Then opponents tried testing the edges of the Seahawks’ aggressive unit, with better success.

The Seahawks finished allowing an average of 3.8 yards per carry, up from earlier in the season but still fourth-best in the league.

“We always look at average per rush, rather than average rush yards per game,” Bradley said. “Maybe we gave up a 140 rushing yards, but it might have taken them 40-42 carries.”

The Seahawks did allow 100-plus rushing yards in 10 games, including each of the final six. But in nine of them the opposition needed 29-plus carries to do it, and twice it was 40-plus.

“The big thing we look at is the rushing yards per attempt,” Bradley said. “So overall, we can get better at it. But we’re pleased with the direction we’re heading.”

The pass defense, meanwhile, was allowing an average of 268.2 yards after five games and had just five interceptions – while allowing three 100-yard receivers. Before the season was over, that average had decreased by 48.3 yards per game while the interception soared to 22 – fourth-highest in the league. As for 100-yard receivers? Only one in the final 11 games, and that was the Cardinals’ Larry Fitzgerald in the season finale.

The Seahawks didn’t just intercept passes; they returned four for touchdowns – two by Browner and one each by Bryant and Hawthorne.

Paying huge dividends were the unexpected efforts and physical presence of the 6-foot-4 Browner, the CFL refugee who started on the right side; and Sherman, the 6-3 rookie who was the third option on the left side after season-ending injuries to Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond.

“Those two corners, that was big,” Bradley said. “They gave us the flexibility to do a lot of different things. So for them to come along like they did, it was just huge.”

The Browner-Sherman tandem allowed the defense to use more press coverage – in man-to-man and zone – which in turn allowed Thomas and Chancellor to play more aggressively, and freely.

“It just gave us more flexibility,” Bradley said. “So it was good.”

Ask the players about this improvement – the sudden as well as the gradual – and they point to the tightness of each unit, as well as the overall group.

“We just hold each other accountable, just knowing and understanding what everybody is thinking at the same time,” said Clemons, who matched his career-high from last season with 11 sacks.

“That’s one of the things about our group; we all just stick together throughout everything. That’s the reason we go out there and give it everything we have, because as I tell them all the time, ‘I’m not playing for myself. I’m playing for everybody on the D-line.’ That’s the way everybody approaches it every week.”

Speaking of Clemons and his sacks, that’s a definite goal moving into the 2012 season: Finding someone to complement him. The next three players on the sack list this season – linebacker Leroy Hill, Branch and rush-end Raheem Brock – combined for one less sack than Clemons generated.

“The struggle is still to get more pressure on the quarterback,” Bradley said. “Clem had a great year; we just need more from other players. That’s always going to be something we’re striving for.”