This story originally appeared in the November 23 issue of Hawk Mail. To subscribe to Hawk Mail, click here.
You'll have to excuse the Seahawks if they aren't interested in lamenting the loss of Richard Sherman for the season, and of Kam Chancellor for at least Monday's game against Atlanta, Sunday's game against San Francisco and possibly longer.
It's not that the Seahawks don't miss the on-field presence of two of their best defensive players, it's that they're too busy trying to win football games to feel sorry for themselves about some tough injury luck, which for the secondary also included the loss of cornerback Shaquill Griffin to a concussion on the second play of the game against the Falcons.
At 6-4, the Seahawks still have everything to play for, and even with numerous injuries, including Pro Bowl defensive end Cliff Avril, who is on injured reserve, they still have plenty of talent to make noise in the postseason. But to achieve their goals, they know they can't get caught up in feeling sorry for themselves about who isn't on the field.
"It's really important that that doesn't alter our focus," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "That's really what we are talking about. Does it allow us to think something else or give us a way out or whatever to not accept the challenges that are there? So it's about mental toughness. It's about being disciplined about your thoughts, and it's about good messaging from the coaches and myself and good messaging from the leaders too. It's an issue, it could be. I think our guys are really good at it and they have been preparing for it, and we're all right."
Carroll feels like his team is all right, even minus some key players, for a number of reasons. For starters, those injured players are still around, helping their teammates in any way they can, be it offering advice in team meetings or offering tips in games and practice or just being supportive from the sideline on gameday.
The Seahawks also know that, even without some players on the field, they have a ton of veteran leadership still available on defense, most notably from defensive co-captain Bobby Wagner, free safety Earl Thomas, seventh-year linebacker K.J. Wright, and Pro-Bowl defensive end Michael Bennett, one of the most vocal leaders on the team.
"Sherm and Kam and those guys are doing a great job just staying involved, staying vocal," Wagner said. "Seeing Sherm on the sideline when he doesn't have to be definitely helps. Being right there when the guys stepping into his place, he's right there to answer questions, and so is Kam, so that helps a lot, as well as guys like me and K.J. communicating with them to help them settle down. It's just the game of football that you've been playing your whole life."
Another reason Carroll remains confident in his defense going forward is that they are now taking advantage of some pretty impressive depth in their secondary. Jeremy Lane, who started for Sherman, and Byron Maxwell, who took over for Griffin and would likely start this week if the rookie isn't cleared from the concussion protocol, have started 66 games between them, and both were a part of two Super Bowl runs with the Seahawks. Bradley McDougald, who started two games for Thomas earlier this month and took over for Chancellor last week, was a two-year starter in Tampa Bay before signing with the Seahawks. Add to that Justin Coleman, who has played very well in the nickel role since taking over that position earlier this season, Neiko Thorpe, a special teams ace who has starting experience, and DeShawn Shead, an every-down player last year who is “really close” to returning from the Physically Unable to Perform List, and Carroll likes his secondary depth, even if two irreplaceable players are unavailable.
"Bradley McDougald is not a young player, Maxie is not a young player, Jeremy Lane is not a young player," Carroll said on 710 ESPN Seattle Tuesday. "Everyone's saying, 'Oh gosh, it's a big difference.' These guys have played a lot of football. We didn't change our style, they didn't change anything about their play, and I don't think they need to… I think we're overdoing that thought. We love Kam, we love Sherm, but these guys have been playing football. We're fortunate that we have guys who can do that."
A day earlier after his team's loss to the Falcons, Carroll refused to let the absence of two starters, and the early loss of another, be an excuse for the result. Two pass interference penalties were costly, and the Seahawks struggled on third down, but they were hardly carved up in the passing game. Atlanta's first two touchdowns came on short fields because of a long kick return and an interception, and their third was a defensive score, and after that the Falcons scored 13 points on six full possessions (not including end of half/game scenarios), hardly a disastrous result against the reigning league MVP and one of the game's most talented receivers, Julio Jones. In fact Matt Ryan, while very efficient, was held to 195 passing yards, his first game under 200 yards in four years, a streak of 67 games, postseason included, that goes back to Atlanta's 2013 loss to the Seahawks when he had 172 yards.
"We're not going to be as experienced as we were; pretty logical thinking there, but those guys can play, they've been around," Carroll said. "Shaq has already played a half a season with us. Jeremy has played for years, and Maxie has played for years. Bradley McDougald has started years. I'm not worried about them at all. I thought those guys did a nice job, other than getting off the field on third down. That was really the Achilles heel."
Team photographer Rod Mar shares exclusive behind-the-scenes images from the Seahawks' 34-31 loss to the Atlanta Falcons during Week 11 at CenturyLink Field.
But being confident in that group shouldn't be confused with complacency. As Carroll noted, there are issues to clean up, most notably the struggles on third down and those two big pass-interference calls. And some growing pains are inevitable for a defense that hasn't played without Sherman since his rookie season in 2011, so that unit should only get stronger going forward.
"It was something that was different, but I felt like the guys stepped up," Wagner said. "We learned a lot of lessons in the last game, and we only can grow from there."
Thomas, who even before the injuries was the most experienced player in the secondary, having started since the beginning of his rookie season in 2010, knows his defense and the team as a whole won't go in the tank just because a few key players are sidelined, but he also is realistic enough to know that a new-look secondary will take some time to be at its best.
"We're never going to that, that's not who we are," he said. "We've got enough—of course we're going to miss Kam and Sherm—but we still have enough.
"Early on, we were trying to get things together, but we settled down. The thing that I took from it is that no matter who was out there, we always have a chance to win. Guys stepped up, but they [Atlanta] also made some big plays on us too… It definitely made us stronger. Matt Ryan is an MVP quarterback, but we still had a chance to win the game. He made some good throws on us, but that's going to happen. We really didn't have a chance to really see ourselves in live-action as far as everybody; the whole new group. All we can do is just get better."