The Seahawks defense more than held its own over the last month as Kam Chancellor recovered from the groin injury that cause him to miss four games. But for the Seahawks defense to be 'The Seahawks Defense' once again, Seattle needed its Pro Bowl strong safety back on the field.
Chancellor isn't just the captain of Seattle's defense; he's the team's defensive tone-setter. He's a strong safety tasked with being equal parts playmaker, enforcer and on- and off-field leader. And as was evident in Chancellor's performance during last week's 31-24 victory at New England, Chancellor is a difference-maker.
"It just added to the hope," free safety Earl Thomas said of the return of Chancellor, alongside whom Thomas has started 77 games in Seattle's defensive backfield. "He has so much experience, he has become an incredible leader off the field. Everybody's morale was just high with him out there with us."
Chancellor was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week for his performance against the Patriots after recording eight tackles and a forced fumble, but his impact was felt beyond those stats. It wasn't just that Chancellor made big plays on the field, which he did, including a tackle and a pass defensed on Seattle's final goal-line stand; it was also what his presence on the field meant to his teammates.
"First off, there's his physical nature on the football field, his physical presence," receiver Doug Baldwin said. "He kind of brings a swagger to the defense, and to the whole team really. There aren't many people who can go up against Kam and win that battle, so he kind of brings the hammer for the whole team. Then obviously his leadership in the locker room, he's just one of those guys who is down to earth. He can talk to anybody, have a conversation with anybody, cares genuinely about everybody, and he brings everybody together."
As excited as the Seahawks were to have Chancellor back, he was equally eager to get back on the field. Initially the hope for Chancellor was that his groin injury would only keep him out a game or two, but a setback during the rehabilitation process caused him to miss more time than expected.
"It felt good to get back on the field," Chancellor said. "Being away for a while, I was just anxious to get back on the field and execute plays that I studied on film and kind of know where teams want to attack us on defense. It felt good to get back out there and execute."
And none of this should diminish the job done by Kelcie McCray, who started four games in Chancellor's place. The Seahawks are fortunate to have a backup as talented as McCray, who played very well in Chancellor's absence, but as Thomas noted, "To be totally honest, you can't replace Kam."
As well as McCray played, there's just no replacing six-plus years of experience, never mind what he brings to the table from a physical standpoint.
"He brings years of experience and years of counting on a great player to be a part of it," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "All that he brings, football-wise, savvy-wise, adjustments, communication, all those things. He's also as hard of a hitter as anybody who plays this game, and that factor, know he's out there and looming, ready to make a hit, cause a factor in our favor. It's coming, so you have that anticipation. He's a great leader too, so he affects people on both sides of the ball with his intensity and focus that he brings, all that stuff. He played really well too, he did a nice job."
Added linebacker Bobby Wagner: "When you've been playing with a guy for so long, just the communication, his leadership is definitely another thing he brought back, the physical nature. His presence on the field—he's a guy you have to account for during the game. It's just another weapon on the field."
On a team full of difference-makers, Chancellor still manages to stand out with what he brings both physically and from a leadership standpoint. Just as Russell Wilson's return to full health—or something close to it—has helped buoy the offense the past two weeks, Chancellor's return, as well as the expected return of defensive end Michael Bennett in the next couple of weeks, will help the Seahawks defense take its game to an even higher level down the stretch.
"He's the captain on this football team," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "It's the attention to detail, the effort, the enthusiasm, the impact of obviously guys getting the football out. It's just overall for a whole kind of just defensive scheme. Different calls come into play, different things like that where we know we've been able to trust in him throughout the years."