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Uncharted territory

Posted Jan 11, 2014

After having one of the best defensive seasons in franchise history during the 2012 season, what could the 2013 unit possibly do for an encore? Lead the NFL in most statistical categories, while leading the Seahawks to a 13-3 record and the NFC West title.


The 2012 Seahawks allowed a league-best average of 15.3 points per game and also ranked a franchise-best No. 4 in average yards allowed. They also forced 31 turnovers and were plus-13 in turnover differential, both fifth-best in the league.

It was, simply, the best defensive performance in franchise history. And obviously it just doesn’t get any better than that, right?

Not exactly. All that defense which led the 2012 Seahawks to an 11-5 record and the franchise’s first road playoff victory since 1983 was just a glimpse of what was to come in 2013. In fact, the 2013 defense led the league in average points allowed (14.4 overall; 13.0 on points allowed by the defense), as well as average yards (273.6) and average passing yards (172.0) allowed. But wait, there’s more. The Seahawks also led the league in interceptions (28), turnovers (39) and turnover differential (plus-20).

GETTING DEFENSIVE

The Seahawks’ 13-3 regular season was driven by the best defense in franchise history, and the best defense in the NFL in 2013. Here’s where they ranked in the nine pivotal categories:

Category Avg./Total NFL Rank
Avg. points allowed 14.4 1
Avg. yards allowed   273.6 1
Avg. passing yards allowed  172.0 1
Avg. rushing yards allowed 101.6 7-T
Turnovers 39 1
Interceptions 28 1
Sacks 44 8-T
Opp. passer rating 63.4 1
Opp. third-down pct. .352 10

Oh, and they also held opposing quarterbacks to the lowest passer rating in the league (63.4) and generated more sacks (44) than any Seahawks defense since 2007 (45).

Connect the dots between all these impressive numbers and it creates a picture of the defense Pete Carroll envisioned when he was hired as the Seahawks coach in 2010 – fast, aggressive, physical, tempo-dictating, ball-hawking and “all that stuff,” as Carroll often adds to the end of sentences.

But this 2013 defensive unit was a run-on sentence, because of the way it played from holding the eventual NFC South Champion Panthers to seven points in the season-opener in Carolina; to holding the two-time defending NFC West Champion San Francisco 49ers to three points in the home-opener; to holding the Rams to a trio of field goals in a “Monday Night Football” game in St. Louis; to holding the New Orleans Saints to seven points in a “Monday Night Football” game at CenturyLink Field; to shutting out the New York Giants in the Meadowlands; to holding the Rams to nine points in the regular-season finale during a victory that clinched the NFC West title and home-field advantage throughout the postseason.

“I’ve had an unbelievably fun time being part of this defense,” first-year coordinator Dan Quinn said. “It’s just a blast coming to work. This is as much fun as I’ve ever had coaching.”

But how did this happen? Why is the defense that will lead the Seahawks into Saturday’s divisional-round playoff matchup against the Saints so good?

It’s not one thing; it’s a combination of so many things.

“From coach Carroll, and the good guys on defense, and the defensive staff,” Quinn said.

Let’s start from the top, which brings us back to Carroll. He played safety at the University of Pacific and coached defense with the Buffalo Bills, Minnesota Vikings, New York Jets and San Francisco 49ers. It’s the defensive principles he learned during those stints as an assistant coach in the NFL, as well as in college for six seasons before coming to the NFL in 1984, which have shaped how his defenses now play. And it’s tough, aggressive, physical defense that sets the tempo for the way he wants the rest of the team to play.

“That’s what makes coaching with Pete so much fun, because he challenges you,” Quinn said. “And he trains us a lot – the way we think, what we would call in certain situations. So the standard is high. And through him, we’ve created a high standard of how to play and what’s expected and the way you prepare and the way that we practice.

“So all of it is a culmination. Why do we do well? It’s a number of things. And trying to get the best out of everybody is where it starts.”

John Schneider and his staff also deserve credit, because he was hired shortly after Carroll and together they have stocked the defensive roster with not only playmakers but players who make plays the way Carroll wants them to – and needs them to.

“Always flying. Always competing,” assistant director of pro personnel Dan Morgan said of the defense. “I think it goes back to Pete always competing. Pete and John, it starts with them and filters down.”

BEST OF THE BEST

The Seahawks have ranked among the Top 10 defenses in the NFL eight times in their 38-year history, including the past three seasons and also from 1990-91. But none of those other seven units matched what this season’s defense accomplished. Here’s a comparison of where the defenses ranked in total yards, rushing yards and passing yards allowed, as well as points allowed and turnovers generated:

Season Overall vs. run vs. pass Points Allowed Turnovers
1984 6 6 10 247 63
1990 9 10 11 244 30
1991 8 15 10 240 39
1992 10 20 4 230 31
1997 8 12 14 327 29
2011 9 15 11 294 31
2012 4 10 6 224 31
2013 1 7 1 208 39

Note: points allowed as those scored only against the defense

Their first draft in 2010 produced All-Pro free safety Earl Thomas (first round), also a three-time Pro Bowl player; Pro Bowl strong safety Kam Chancellor (fifth round); and cornerback Walter Thurmond (fourth round). Prior to the draft, they acquired Leo end Chris Clemons in a trade with the Philadelphia Eagles. In the 2012 NFL Draft, they added All-Pro and Pro Bowl cornerback Richard Sherman (fifth round), who leads the NFL in interceptions (20) and passes defensed (60) over the past three seasons; versatile linebacker K.J. Wright (fourth round); and cornerback Byron Maxwell (sixth round) and linebacker Malcolm Smith (seventh round), who have stepped in for injured teammates and played like starters this season. Last year, the draft brought middle linebacker and two-time leading tackler Bobby Wagner (second round), linebacker Bruce Irvin (first round) and cornerback Jeremy Lane (sixth round).

These new arrivals mixed well with holdover defensive linemen Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant, and all of them in turn meshed with this season’s free-agent additions – sack-leaders Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril and underrated three-technique tackle Tony McDaniel. After releasing Clinton McDonald in August on the roster cut to 53 players, the club re-signed the versatile lineman two weeks later and he produced a career-high 5.5 sacks.

“The bond that these guys have on defense, I’ve never seen a tighter group of guys that compete every day in practice as hard as they do on a consistent basis,” Morgan said. “It’s just their hunger as a group to be great. It’s really fun to watch.”

A perfect example of what Morgan is talking about happens every time one of the “backups” makes a play while the starters are on the sideline. Thomas sprints the width of the field to congratulate practice-squad corner Akeem Auguste after he intercepts a pass. Sherman races 65 yards to shoulder-bump backup safety DeShawn Shead after he breaks up a pass in the end zone.

“Everybody that we bring in, whether it’s practice-squad guys or guys signed to fill roster spots, the level of everybody’s game rises,” Morgan said. “It has to. Otherwise, you’re going to get weeded out. I think that’s what’s made our defense this good.”

And Morgan is looking at the situation from the inside-out on multiple levels. He watches the Seahawks’ practices – which are held at a game-tempo pace. But he also studies video of every other team in the league. And before he joined the Seahawks’ scouting department, Morgan was a Pro Bowl linebacker for the Carolina Panthers.

“That’s what I think makes our defense so good – the tempo they practice at, the attention to detail, the focus that they bring every day,” Morgan said. “I think it’s unmatched.”

Then there are the coaches, starting with Quinn, who was re-hired in January after coordinator Gus Bradley left to become head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars. Quinn had been the Seahawks’ line coach in 2009-10, then spent the 2011-12 seasons as the defensive coordinator at the University of Florida.

“I think he’s done a fantastic job,” Carroll said. “We’re holding up our end of it. We’re hard to score on. We’re doing great in the turnover game. We continue to play really consistent ball and are utilizing our talent. We have a pretty good pass rush.

“So I think he’s done a great job. He had a lot to measure up to, because Gus Bradley had done a fine job for us as well. We are kind of what we are. We’re keeping the points down and we’re pretty tough to throw the ball at. So I’m really fired up and Dan is doing a great job.”

If one thing changed with Quinn’s arrival as the coordinator, it was a more aggressive approach to play-calling that starts with playing more man-to-man coverage – which the Legion of Boom secondary relishes.

“He’s very aggressive in his style with the players and his expectations of how they have to play to play in our system,” Carroll said. “He’s very technique-oriented, really disciplined. He just has all of the right elements to make a good football coach.”

But the competitive nature that drives the players who drive the defense that drives his team also includes the teaching and motivational methods used by position coaches Kris Richard (defensive backs), Ken Norton (linebackers), Travis Jones (line), Rocky Seto (passing-game coordinator), Marquand Manuel (defensive assistant) and Robert Saleh (quality control).

“To the assistant coaches’ credit, those guys have done an outstanding job in developing not just the position but the attitude, the mindset of what it takes to play,” Quinn said. “We take pride in saying we’re going to make each player as good as they can be.”

Good-to-great players, who are well-coached, in an aggressive scheme. It has created a where-to-start situation for opposing coaches while preparing to face the Seahawks’ defense that ranked No. 1 in so many categories.

“Boy,” St. Louis coach Jeff Fisher said when asked what impressed him most about a Seahawks’ defense that held the Rams to one touchdown in two games. “Their speed and their depth. All three groups are outstanding – the defensive line, linebackers and secondary.

“They don’t do an awful lot; they just do it very, very well.”

Better than any defense in the NFL this season, and better than any defense in franchise history.

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