It’s a special group

Posted Oct 13, 2013

What makes the Seahawks’ special teams so special? It depends on who you ask. But there’s no denying it’s the sum of their thoughts that have created one of the most-special units in the NFL.

In 2011, the Seahawks’ special teams weren’t all that special, ranking No. 16 in the NFL. But the units coordinated by Brian Schneider jumped to No. 3 last season, and entering today’s game against the Tennessee Titans at CenturyLink Field the Seahawks are No. 2.

What’s been the secret to this sudden and then continuing success? It all depends on who you ask. Schneider will tell it’s the players making the plays, while the players will tell you it’s Schneider’s schemes and teaching that allow them to make those plays which make the Seahawks among the best special teams units in all of football.

“What we’ve done, what we’re doing, that’s a testament to coach Schneider,” said Steven Hauschka, the almost-perfect kicker – who was named NFC Special Teams Player of the Week after hitting three field goals against the Houston Texans in Week 4, including a 45-yard game-winner in overtime; and then added three more field goals in last week’s loss to the Colts in Indianapolis.

“Coach Schneider does an amazing job coaching these young players up. We’ve had a few guys emerge in practice who then play with great instincts in the games. We have so many guys playing well, and that goes back to coach Schneider. He coaches guys on their fundamentals, but he lets them play hard and without any reservations. He doesn’t over-coach, and that’s huge on special teams because it allows guys to play fast. That’s his thing, and I think it’s showing in all the good things we’re doing.”

But Schneider, who was hired as part of Pete Carroll’s initial staff in 2010, says schemes are only as good as the players performing them.

“I think it’s just the consistency of the guys being around,” Schneider said. “Most of our core guys are going on their third year of being here. So I think it’s the familiarity of what we’re doing and also playing with the same guys.

“We’ve been doing the same drills, same technique, same stuff. So I think everyone just keeps improving that way, and it’s the familiarity of just being together.”

Whatever the reason, the numbers that really count for Schneider and his core special teams players are those posted after each game on the huge board that’s in the hallway between the locker room and training room at Virginia Mason Athletic Center.

There are 12 boxes under each game. Achieve the goal and a Seahawks helmet is placed in the box. So far, the Seahawks have achieved “10” twice and “8” three times. They missed the second “12” Schneider and his more veteran players have ever seen when a botched call by the officials led to a Jon Ryan punt being blocked in the home opener against the San Francisco 49ers – one play that prompted four blank boxes. In last week’s game against the Colts, they blocked a punt, but also had a field goal blocked.

The fine-line difference on that one play against the 49ers and the two against the Colts are equal to the fiber-optic thin line that often separates arms-raised success from forehead-slapping failure on these anything-can-happen plays that backup safety and special-teams front man Chris Maragos labels “controlled chaos.”

“As crazy as special teams is, you need all 11 guys doing exactly what they need to do and buying into the whole philosophy,” said Maragos, who has been among the leaders in coverage tackles in each of his three seasons with the Seahawks.

“That’s why, to me, special teams are so unique, because one guy just doesn’t make a play. It’s a gunner going down there and making a returner stop his feet so another guy can come in and make a tackle. It’s a guy running down on a kickoff and cleaning up for another guy. Or it’s another guy creating a key block that springs a returner free.

“And that’s another thing that makes special teams so cool. It’s such a group effort and when you have a lot of selfless guys, you see a lot of success.”

Another element that separates the Seahawks’ special teams is how many players are part of them, and how many of those have big special-teams plays on their resume.

When the Seahawks kick off to the Titans today check the ends of the coverage line. That’s where you’ll find All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas and Pro Bowl-caliber strong safety Kam Chancellor, just before they race down the field looking to converge at the returner.

“That pretty much tells you everything you need to know about how important special teams are around here,” said Maragos, who always seems to find a way to be right in the middle of everything good these units come up with.

“We have the stability and we kind of have the groundwork laid. Then as we just keep adding pieces to it, you see things just keep rolling. Guys buy in. They work hard. They play hard. And you see the results on Sundays.”

Then there’s that lineup of the special teams players who have made special plays:

Heath Farewell – A co-captain of these units last year, his teammates voted him the captain this season. And why not? Schneider has referred to Farwell as a coach on the field, and his teammates can seemingly talk forever about everything he brings that help make their units so special. Signed midway through the 2011 season, Farwell led not only the team but the NFL with 21 coverage tackles in 11 games. Last year, when he was an alternate to the Pro Bowl, he again led the team with 15 coverage tackles. This season, he’s tied for the lead with four.

Red Bryant – The 323-pound starter at the five-technique defensive end spot has blocked five kicks, including a field goal that All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman returned 90 yards for a touchdown in last December’s 43-13 victory over the eventual NFC Champion San Francisco 49ers.

Malcolm Smith – He started this season as the starter at strong-side linebacker, but last season he blocked a punt that was returned for a touchdown and then scored himself with a muffed punt return.

Jon Ryan – All he’s done since joining the team in 2008 is break most of the franchise punting records, and in 2011 he led the league with 34 punts inside the 20-yard line. This season, opponents have 8 return yards on his 20 punts.

Golden Tate – He’s the starting split end, but also the punt returner. Tate’s 12.4-yard average leads the NFC and ranks fifth in the league.

Chris Maragos – The backup safety always is around the ball – and the ball carrier. This season, Maragos is second with three coverage tackles. Last season, he was third with nine. In 2011, he tied for second with 11.  That’s the kind of consistency Schneider was talking about.

Jeremy Lane – He was leading the team in coverage tackles (four) before injuring a hamstring in the Week 4 win against the Texans, and doing enough other things well enough to generate some first-quarter All-Pro honors.

“You can’t say enough about Jeremy Lane,” Farwell said. “They’re doubling him out there at the gunner spot and he’s splitting them and making the tackle, drawing penalties and still making the tackle.”

Derrick Coleman – He not only has replaced Pro Bowler Michael Robinson at fullback, Coleman has inherited a lot of the duties he had on special teams – and that Robinson did well enough to be voted a special teams co-captain last season.

“Coleman has done a great job. He’s fit right in,” Schneider said. “He just does things right. And that’s really what we’re all about.”

Added Farwell: “Derrick Coleman is playing as well as anybody in this league.” And that comes from someone who has made his nine-season career by playing special teams as well as anybody in the league.

Jermaine Kearse – He may be proving himself as a receiver while tied for the team lead in receiving TDs, but is also a threat as the kickoff returner. In the preseason, Kearse returned his first attempt 107 yards for a TD. He has also found other ways to put points on the board. At Indianapolis, he blocked a punt out of the end zone that resulted in a safety.

And, of course, Hauschka, who provides the points that underline just how important special teams are to the Seahawks – and how much importance they put on them. Hauschka is 12 of 13 on field goals and 13 of 13 on PATs. But where his efforts have really improved is on the long balls, as 21 of 31 kickoffs have been touchbacks. He had 26 touchbacks in 2011 and 36 last season.

“It’s been a great group for us,” Carroll said.

Not to mention special. “We’ve just got so many good players – so athletic and so talented and so fast,” Farwell said. “It’s hard to match us athlete for athlete. It’s a special group.”