Four games into the 2016 season, the Seahawks defense looks like, well, the Seahawks defense. Seattle ranks first in yards allowed, third in points allowed and second in passing defense, and Seahawks coach Pete Carroll particularly likes the consistency and discipline with which his defense is playing.
But the Seahawks also know they haven't faced a test like the one they'll see Sunday when they host the Atlanta Falcons; not this season, and maybe not in several years.
"They look really, really good," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "This is the best offense I've seen all year. This is definitely a challenge, we've got the No. 1 offense vs. the No. 1 defense, and you want to see who's best. We know that defense wins games, so we've got to go out there and do our thing, stop the run and get those turnovers."
Pressed on the last time he had seen an offense as good as Atlanta's which currently leads the league in yards, points, passing yards and explosive plays (runs of 12-plus yards and passes of 16-plus), Wright couldn't come up with a quick answer because, "It's been a minute. I don't think I've seen an offense like this where they can do everything, run the ball, throw it vertical. The tight end is good, both running backs are good. It's been a long time."
When the record-setting 2013 Broncos offense Seattle faced in Super Bowl XLVIII was mentioned, Wright quickly said, "No, (Atlanta) is much better… Trust me, they can do everything."
So yes, this a legitimate test the Seahawks are facing when they play the Matt Ryan-led Falcons offense on Sunday, but it's one that they are as well-equipped as ever to handle. In past meetings with top-ranked, talented offenses, whether it was those 2013 Broncos or the Saints earlier that season, or Arizona late last season, the Seahawks have a pretty good history taking on elite offensive attacks.
"They've got some weapons," defensive end Cliff Avril said. "They've got two backs who can do things on the edge and up the middle, obviously Matt Ryan and Julio (Jones) are two of the best doing it right now… But we definitely feel like we can play with those guys."
One reason the Seahawks feel like they can match up well with anybody is simply the talent they put on the field. The Seahawks have Pro-Bowlers at all three levels, including three in the secondary, and several other starters like Wright and Avril also easily could have earned Pro Bowl honors in recent years with their standout play. But now more than ever, another reason for Seattle's defensive success is the experience that unit takes with it onto the field every Sunday.
Safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor are in their seventh season, Richard Sherman and Wright their sixth, Bobby Wagner his fifth, and Avril and Michael Bennett are in their fourth season with the Seahawks. And cornerbacks Jeremy Lane and DeShawn Shead, while not longtime starters like the players mentioned above, have been with the Seahawks since 2012, so they know the system as well as anyone.
"It's familiarity," Carroll said. "These guys have been together for a long time and the coaches have been together. (Defensive coordinator Kris Richard) does a great job connecting the dots for the guys so that they can make the most of their experiences and bank on that. We're communicating at an all-time high and everybody knows what's going on. If we see things we can adjust really quickly, the guys can adjust before they get to the sidelines on plays at times. If we miss something it's corrected immediately because they know that they were supposed to be here or there. It's a really high level of communication that allows us to bank on the experience and carry it over. Then they got to practice it every week to make sure we keep it sharp, and that's kind of what has happened so far. But we go out every week and we start all over again and we see where we are, and that's what we will do this week."
Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is in charge of communicating play-calls from Richard to the rest of the defense, and over time he has noticed how much less actual talking has to happen in order for everyone to be on the same page.
"I just think the communication, there's a lot of non-verbal communication now because we've been playing together for a long time," Wagner said. "I think that's probably where there's the most growth, just playing together, being together for so long to the point where you can just look at somebody and know what they're going to do. I think that's what makes us excel."
Added Carroll: "To some degree they don't have to say as much and they understand. It's pretty clear there's a lot of nonverbal communication, everybody kind of gets it and they understand what is happening. That's just kind of the intuition that gets developed over time and experience and all that. They're just at a really high level of communication. For the young guys coming in, there's a big separation that they have to catch up, but it's a really good accelerator for them too, bring them along quicker. Everything is going in the right direction right now."
Yet no matter how much talent is on the field or how well those players work together after all of these years, they'll never head into a game or a season feeling like they have everything figured out. The standard Seattle's defense holds itself to is a mythical one that players don't actually see as attainable as much as goal to continually be chasing.
"I think we're playing good, not great," Chancellor said. "I think we probably won't ever reach great because it's too far out there and we're always striving for perfection all the time. You can't be perfect, but it's steady progress every week, every day."
But even if perfection is unattainable, an experienced and talented Seahawks defense feels good about the way it is playing heading into a Week 6 showdown with the league's most prolific offense.
"We have that chemistry, the chemistry is great," Wright said. "We're out there communicating without even speaking to each other, we can just look at each other and know what to do. That really shows up on the football field, and it show why we've been the No. 1 defense the past couple years."
The Seahawks and Falcons have battled 16 times, including playoffs, since 1976, with Seattle owning 10 victories. The two teams meet again this Saturday in the Divisional Round of the playoffs at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.