In game-planning for the Miami Dolphins this week, a conversation between Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and cornerback Richard Sherman landed on a single play that happened three seasons ago, and the two discussed how that one play could apply to what the Seahawks will try to do Sunday in their season opener.
Welcome to the grown up version of Seahawks defense.
While a certain level of roster turnover is inevitable in the NFL, the Seahawks have built a defensive nucleus full of players who have been together for years. Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are heading into their seventh season, linebacker K.J. Wright and Sherman their sixth, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner and cornerback Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead their fifth, and defensive ends Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril their fourth in Seattle.
And in those thousands of hours of practice and film study, in all of those numerous walk-through practices and games, those players have built a level of communication and connectedness that they believe will help them be even better in 2016 than they were a year ago when they led the NFL in scoring defense for a fourth straight season.
"We have watched the communication level become more intense, deeper, more poignant, less words, more understanding," Carroll said before relaying the story of his conversation with Sherman. "They don't have to say so much—they know. We can recall experiences that have happened, I was talking to Sherm about something that happened three years ago this morning, a play. We were talking about something that would apply now. That fluid interaction is really valuable. The clearer they are, the better they can communicate, the faster they play. And we are dedicated to playing fast and committed to keeping our guys at the edge of their ability level, and that communication is hugely valuable. We're as good as we've ever been in that regard and we're banking on it.
"It's a big part of our team. We've got a real serious group of guys who are really experienced and have been with us for a great while, and we can bank on that."
For a team that plays a significant amount of zone defense, having everyone on the same page is essential, and more than ever the Seahawks feel like they're reaching the point where they can be in synch without having to say much, if anything, to get on the same page.
"If you know where a guy's at, you know where you need to be, and you know on a certain fit, you can go fast because you know you have backup," Wagner said. "Knowing where your backup is, knowing where your help is, that allows you to play faster."
And when things aren't right, it's an easier process than ever to fix them.
"Me and Earl just had a conversation at walk-through that was just perfect," Wright said. "He just told me, 'In this particular situation, I'm playing this like this.' That was good, because I didn't know that. I would have been doing what he would have been doing. It's just little small things that can go a long ways. … You're just always growing with each other. You never have it, you're always growing and evolving with each other. Communication is the key. Understanding how one guy is playing so you can understand how to play."
But more experience and better communication doesn't just manifest itself in the form of fewer breakdowns and mistakes, or the ability to fix them when they do happen. When the Seahawks are at their best defensively, they're artists at their peak who are able to express their personal talents while still performing within the structure of Carroll's defense. Think of it as freelancing, but with boundaries.
"The depth of interaction and experiences that we've had allows us to really understand things in greater depth," Carroll said. "It allows us to expand, just because they're open for it, they're ready for it. They can do more, they can take advantage of their background and experience. It's an exciting relationship that we have in that regard. We can talk to our guys on deep levels about ball, and they can respond in a heartbeat and they can make things come to life for us. We're very fortunate to have that, and you'll see us do things during the course of the season that will take advantage of that. That should be clear down the road here."
The ability of players to expand what they do within the confines of the defense is something Carroll likens to the way a musician or dancer grows in their ability to express themselves as they master their craft. Just as Jimi Hendrix didn't just pick up a guitar one day and play "Little Wing," players like Sherman, Thomas, Wagner, Wright, Chancellor and Bennett didn't just step on the field as rookies and play free and at their highest level.
"The freedom comes with the discipline, that they learn how to do their job and they understand it so well that they know the parameters and boundaries of what they can and can't do," Carroll said. "That allows the expression of freedom to come out, and the opportunity to improvise to some extent. That comes from discipline and repetition and great practice and great experience. Just think of the world of performance, dancers and musicians get better, they keep playing, and they take themselves into a different realm of freedom and improvisation that allows them to really express what they're all about. Hopefully, in our world here, that's what happens. That's how you see Sherm play, that's how you see Kam play, Bobby is incredible and K.J., those guys are incredible at understanding the game and they start to see things and make things happen because of their awareness and the depth of understanding. There is nobody that expresses that better than Michael Bennett. Mike's a really good illustration of that. I think Mike and Richard are the two guys that probably show you that the most. They lead us, they take us to places where you go, 'Oh, maybe we can start to coach that up some, make something out of that and make that a part of the fundamentals of the things we do.' You get really into the depths and the good stuff when you're there."
As Sherman notes, that freedom to express their ability on the field—again, within certain boundaries of the defense—allows the Seahawks to be much more complex that their cover-3 scheme might sometimes suggest.
"We've evolved over the years," Sherman said. "Compared to what the defense looks like on paper and what we actually put on the field, you probably wouldn't recognize it. Some of our guys put their own spin on it and it works out differently. That's why it's not as simple as they all say—'You play a cover-1 or a cover-3, or this, that, and the other,' but it doesn't look the same way as other people's does."
Added Thomas: "We've seen a lot of football. We've been in a lot of situations, so the more and more we go over it every year, you start to see new stuff that you didn't see the year prior. (Defensive coordinator Kris) Richard does a great job of just letting us express ourselves without him even talking. I feel like most coaches would be like, 'Hey, alert this, alert that,' but especially when it gets close to game time like today, he allows us to be ourselves and express ourselves in the way we communicate. That's why we can play a defense that's so simple. We make it look the way it looks because of the way we communicate."
Continued growth and maturation isn't the only reason the Seahawks feel good about their defense this season. In addition to having more experience than ever, the Seahawks also simply have more key players available and at full strength than they did heading into last season. When the 2015 season began, Thomas was able to play, but had only recently returned from a shoulder injury and wasn't quite at his best to start the year, while Chancellor was absent for the first two games because of a contract dispute, and Lane was unavailable during the first half of the season while recovering from knee and arm injuries suffered in the Super Bowl.
Heading into the opener, Thomas is "well ahead of where he was," according to Carroll; Chancellor is not just present, but back in a leadership role to the point that his teammates voted him a captain; and Lane will be a big part of the secondary. Add to that all of the experience Seattle's defense is bringing to the 2016 season, the abundance of talent and the quality of coaching, and it's easy to see why the Seahawks are so optimistic about their defense heading into the season.
"The vibe is good, the chemistry is good," Wright said. "The vibe is really good. Everybody's here, everybody's happy, everybody's healthy. I believe we're going to start fast, and finish strong like we always do."
The Seattle Seahawks have faced the Miami Dolphins 15 times dating back to 1977, going 4-8 in the regular season and 1-2 in the postseason. They'll look to add another win this Sunday, October 4 at 10 a.m. PT at Hard Rock Stadium.