As the Seahawks defense shut down an opposing offense for a second straight week, middle linebacker Bobby Wagner looked around the field Monday night and saw something that let him know the defense he captains is in a good place.
It wasn't a big hit that tipped Wagner off, nor was it a turnover or some other game-changing play. It was something a lot more basic than any of that that showed Wagner the Seahawks defense had turned a corner after struggling in two losses to open the season.
"Honestly to me, the difference is having fun," Wagner said. "If you watched that last game, there was a lot of jumping around, a lot of high-fiving, a lot of guys just getting after it. That's what was missing the first two games. I feel like we're getting in a really good rhythm and we're just trying to keep it going."
Of course maybe this is a chicken-or-the-egg kind of deal. Was Wagner seeing his defense play well because they were having fun, or were players having fun because they were playing well? Either way, it's clear that the defense that has been the best in the NFL in recent years has found its way after some early struggles.
In Seattle's Week 3 shutout victory over the Bears, the Seahawks allowed just 146 yards of offense and forced Chicago to punt on every one of its 10 possessions. In fact, the Bears only ran two offensive plays in Seahawks territory that entire game, never advancing past the Seattle 45-yard line.
A week later, a more potent Detroit Lions offense fared only marginally better, totaling 256 yards while punting on 8 of 10 possessions with only a field goal to show for its efforts. Detroit's final drive, which ended with Kam Chancellor forcing a fumble on a Calvin Johnson catch, was the only time the Lions were in the red zone.
"We came home, that was one thing, and we got in our comfort zone," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "Our first two opponents were tough opponents, Kam came back, it's just a mixture of things. We're definitely playing well, and now we got in our groove. We know how it feels and we know what to expect, and hopefully it's going to carry over."
The consensus among defenders is that nothing drastic changed from them allowing a combined 713 yards and 71 points in their first two games to dominating their past two opponents, but rather that they just cleaned up a lot of little things that caused them to give up too many big plays in St. Louis and Green Bay.
"It's just not making mistakes," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "Most mistakes on a team happen in the first couple of weeks because people are still figuring things out. I think now we figured out where we want to be at, and that's the most important thing.
"Just cleaning up little stuff, nothing crazy. Most of the time it was people making plays, it wasn't like they ran over us. It was a busted coverage or somebody wasn't where they were supposed to be. Now we're where we're supposed to be at, so people don't get anything."
Well OK, there might have been one drastic change between Week 2 and Week 3.
"Kam Chancellor," linebacker Bruce Irvin said when asked about the defense improving. "It's Kam. His presence, his versatility, his brains, his everything. When he's around, it just kicks us into a different gear, it feels like everybody plays at a different level. When he wasn't here, it felt like we were missing a piece of the puzzle, and now he's back and we're playing at a really high level."
Added Seahawks coach Pete Carroll when asked about Chancellor's impact making a difference: "It sure looks like it doesn't it. It sure looks like it. We've just played really good football, and the guys are starting to get that feeling. It takes time to develop and get that sense, but they really are starting to get that feeling. Now here we go with the best challenge in the NFL, so we'll see what that all means. But up until this point the turnaround has been obvious and he's been instrumental."
As Carroll mentioned, the Seahawks are facing a big challenge this week when they face the Cincinnati Bengals. While the Seahawks rank second in total defense, allowing 278.8 yards per game, the Bengals rank second in total offense at 422.0 yards per game. The Bengals are also fourth in scoring (30.3) and have been balanced, ranking seventh in rushing (128.0) and fourth in passing (294.0). And the Bengals are getting it done with big plays in particular, completing a league-best 20 passes of 20 or more yards, and five of 40 or more yards.
"For sure, it's going to be a great challenge," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "What they do best is what we emphasize. It's staying on top and eliminating explosive plays, and they're the most explosive offense in the NFL right now, so it'll certainly be a big challenge."
While the Bengals are thriving on big plays, the Seahawks have made stopping those plays one of the top priorities ever since Carroll took over. From cornerbacks staying on top of their receivers to Earl Thomas' ability to take away deep passes in the middle of the field to linebackers and safeties rallying to the ball to make tackles before a short pass can become a big play, everything the Seahawks teach focuses on eliminating big plays.
"In our defensive scheme we are extraordinarily tied to that principal," Carroll said. "If you give up long touchdown plays, you're not a very good defense. It doesn't matter what you do, or how hard you hit or whatever. So it all begins there. That's the first aspect of playing defense, you can't give up easy plays. So it just begins there. How much do we speak about it and try to make sense of that? As much as we can and as much as need be, and we're very lucky and fortunate that our guys on the back end have really understood that. Earl has been a tremendous advocate of the philosophy, as has Richard (Sherman) and Kam, and Cary (Williams) is really tuned in."
Eliminating the big plays will be a tough challenge against the 4-0 Bengals, but if the Seahawks defense continues to roll, expect Wagner and company to do a lot more jumping around, high-fiving and having fun.