Pete Carroll was heaping praise on Saints quarterback Drew Brees when the Seahawks coach inadvertently also explained one of the best things about the defense he helped build in Seattle.
"He is one of the great players to play in this game," Carroll said. "I don't think of guys in that way until they've played a really long time."
Just as Brees has built a Hall of Fame résumé not by having one great season surrounded by mediocre ones, but rather by stacking one excellent season on top of another, year after year after year, the Seahawks are with each passing season making their case for being one of the greatest defenses in NFL history by sustaining a high level of play for multiple seasons.
Dating back to the 2012 season, Carroll's third in Seattle, the Seahawks have led the NFL in points allowed for four straight years, and after holding the Cardinals to 6 points on Sunday, the Seahawks are again tied for first in that all-important measure of defensive success. Over the past four seasons, the Seahawks have on average allowed 15.7 points per game, a full touchdown better than the league average of 22.9 points per game. And as this year's 14.0 points-per-game allowed average shows, Seattle's defense is showing no signs of slowing down.
"To me, that's what you're trying to accomplish, to show that you can do stuff really well for a really long time," Carroll said. "That's much more important to me than having some big, spiked year, where you have big stats and all that kind of stuff. Show that you got it together to keep coming back and keep coming back and keep coming back, and they can't do anything about it."
This weekend, the New Orleans Saints are the team trying to do something about it, and while the Saints have one of the league's best offenses, averaging 421.7 yards and 29.3 points per game, Brees knows he and his teammates will have their hands full having played the Seahawks multiple times in recent years. Just as Carroll is impressed with Brees' sustained excellence, so too is the Saints quarterback with Seattle's consistently high level of defensive play.
"Obviously I feel like I've faced some good (defenses)," Brees told reporters in New Orleans this week. "I've faced a lot of really good players, and different teams get rolling at different times. But these guys over the last four or five years, I think it's rare to have a stretch of time where you just have so much consistency on one side of the ball. Not just the players that are there, but just in their performance. It's been pretty remarkable."
And while points allowed is a very good indicator of Seattle's continued success on defense, it's not the only one. The Seahawks ranked fourth in yards allowed in 2012, then were first in 2013 and 2014 before finishing second in 2015, and they've been first or second in passing yards allowed for three straight years. And if you're more into advanced stats, the Seahawks defense has ranked second, first, first and fourth over the past four seasons according to FootballOutsiders.com's signature metric, DVOA.
"It's real special," linebacker K.J. Wright said. "It's something we've done for a while, we've done it at a real high level. It's just who we are. We all know that defense wins football games, defense wins championships, so we've just got to keep it up, keep the accountability up and keep going."
Like so many other things in sports, Seattle's defensive success is more about the process that produces the impressive statistics than it is about the results of their hard work.
"We take a lot of pride in our standard more than anything," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "We take a lot of pride in how high of a level we hold ourselves too, both individually and collectively. At the end of the day, everything else kind of sorts itself out. All the rankings all the accolades, everything else kind of falls into place. We're more focused on the things we can control, our attitude, our effort, our assignments and giving everybody everything you've got. If you got a pulling guard and you're a corner and you've got to turn him back to the linebacker, then you turn him back. If you're a linebacker and you have to guard a receiver, you've got to guard a receiver. That's your job on the play. I think those are the kind of sacrifices that nobody sees that guys make that that allow us to be who we are. I don't think guys on other teams necessarily do that on a consistent basis, sacrifice for one another. Our coaches say, 'lay on the barbed wire for your brother,' and that's what we do.
"We don't do anything exotic, we play as hard as we can as long as we can and we make you deal with us."
That willingness to "lay on the barbed wire" was never more evident than in last weekend's game at Arizona when the Seahawks defense battle through 95 defensive snaps while holding an explosive Cardinals offense to just six points. Every team preaches things like effort and competitiveness, but few exemplify it like the Seahawks were able to in that 6-6 tie.
"I think for us, we're just competitors," defensive end Michael Bennett said. "At the end of the day, we compete and that's why we're such a great defense. I think a lot of times on some teams, there is three competitors, maybe four competitors, maybe five, but to go out there and play defense with 11 guys that are competing at every moment, it makes it a lot easier. It makes it easier to play. I think that's what we do best. We compete; that's what drives us. Just competing against ourselves and competing for each other, I think that's why we've been so great. Doing it so long together and having a bunch of people that you know at the end of the line, when someone is running to the end zone, you know that we're not just going to let them score. There's going to be somebody that is going to tackle him before he gets to the one. I think because we've been doing it for so long together, we know that everybody on the team is a true competitor. I think that's what makes us so great."
Of course, to put Seattle's defensive success only on effort or competitiveness would be downplaying both the talent on Seattle's roster, as well as the way those players are coached. The Seahawks have five players on their defense who have earned Pro Bowl and/or All-Pro honors—Sherman, Wagner, Bennett, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor—and others who are probably deserving of postseason recognition, most notably Wright and defensive end Cliff Avril. And that list doesn't even include the players Sherman called his "real MVPs" of the defense, Ahtyba Rubin and Tony McDaniel, the defensive tackle tandem responsible for a lot of the often-unnoticed hard work that goes on in the trenches.
"This defense doesn't work without them," Sherman said. "Week in and week out, they get ignored. People are wondering how great running games aren't running for a lot of yards, well it's because of those guys."
Asked for a reason for his team's long-term defensive success, Wright cites something that happened earlier in that day's walkthrough practice.
"I believe it's the way we practice, the way we set up our format of everything, how we do our walkthroughs, how we make sure everything is on it," Wright said. "Today we repeated a run play four times to make sure we do that play correctly."
And it's fitting that Wright and Sherman both bring up run defense, because as well-known as Seattle's defense is for its secondary, it has increasingly become a dominant force against the run as well. After ranking a respectable 10th and seventh against the run in 2012 and 2013, the Seahawks jumped to third in that category in 2014 and first in 2015, and they currently rank fifth there this season, and are tied for second in yards allowed per carry at 3.3. And perhaps most significant for Carroll, a coach who abhors allowing big plays, Seattle's run defense has been great at limiting long runs. By the measure the Seahawks use for explosive plays (12-plus-yard runs and 16-plus-yard passes), the Seahawks have allowed just three explosive runs this season, by far the fewest in the league. Last year the Seahawks ranked first in that category, allowing 16 explosive runs, and in 2014 they were second with 20.
What Seattle's defense has done, not just this season, but repeatedly over the years, has already put them in the history books as the only team in the Super Bowl era to lead the league in scoring defense for four straight seasons, and as they continue to build on that success, they're only cementing their legacy as an all-time great defense. For now, however, that won't be the focus, not with another tough test coming up on Sunday.
"I think our defense and the players on this defense will be remembered for a long time, but while we're in it, while we're playing, while we're doing our thing, we don't really think about the historic value and the historic plays and games that we're in," Sherman said. "We just keep trying to play hard and trying to put it on tape until we can't, until our bodies run out and guys don't have it anymore. These windows don't last forever, so we we're just trying to enjoy it while we're here."
This Sunday the Seahawks will face the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Throughout their history, these two teams have battled 12 times splitting the all-time series 6-6.