The Seahawks came into the 2017 season with eight starters on defense who have appeared in at least one Pro Bowl. But as much as that star power helped make Seattle's defense one of the best in the NFL, it was a couple of players who weren't on the radar of Seahawks fans before this offseason who were making some of the biggest plays in last week's win over the Colts.
Marcus Smith, a former first-round pick turned Philadelphia Eagles castoff, had 1.5 sacks Sunday, including one that forced a fumble that Bobby Wagner returned for a touchdown. Justin Coleman, a September trade acquisition from New England, most notably had a pick-6 in the first half, but also was solid in coverage throughout the game.
Smith was on the field more Sunday than in the previous game because of an injury to Cliff Avril, who will be out this week and quite possibly longer, while Coleman was filling in for Jeremy Lane, who sustained a groin injury in the first quarter, and whose status is in question this week after missing the first two days of practice.
Obviously the Seahawks would prefer to be at full strength, but they also feel good about their chances of playing well on defense without some key players because of the depth they have on that side of the ball.
"We have always had the mentality that the next guy is going to do all right," Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. "We are never really worried about that… We count on those guys to do a nice job whether they are coming off the bench or starting. We do have good depth and have a roster that we have felt strongly about for some time. I think that kind of shows."
As Carroll notes, the Seahawks have been excited about their depth for a while now, with Carroll saying throughout the offseason and training camp that he thinks this team's depth rivals that of any other team he has coached here. And while the core of the defense is made up of returning veterans, the depth is so strong in large part because of pieces Seattle added this offseason.
In addition to Coleman stepping in, third-round pick Shaquill Griffin had to take on a bigger role when Lane went down, becoming an every-down player while Coleman took over the nickel role. Fellow rookie Nazair Jones has made a big difference as one of three newcomers in the D-line rotation along with Smith and trade-acquisition Sheldon Richardson. And while Wagner and K.J. Wright have been constants at linebacker for several years, the rest of that position group looks a lot different, with free-agent signings Michael Wilhoite and Terence Garvin both starting games already, and with trade acquisition D.J. Alexander stepping into a big special teams role. In addition to Griffin and Coleman at corner, the Seahawks also added secondary depth in safety Bradley McDougald, who has become one of Seattle's top special teams players while also providing starter-quality depth behind Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.
"We feel great," cornerback Richard Sherman said of his team's depth. "It's the first time in a long time that we've had the kind of depth that we're looking for on every level; the D-line, the linebackers, and the secondary. Bradley McDougald is one of those guys who gives us a lot of versatility. (Coleman) comes off the bench and plays like a starter; he got a pick-six that had a tremendous impact on the game. On the D-line, we have a lot of guys; we lost David Bass, but he was a guy, Marcus Smith obviously is doing a great job for us, he had 1.5 sacks. Nazair, the young guys are stepping up and playing like vets, so you can appreciate it. Wilhoite at the linebacker spot is so veteran and saved us countless times, so we're excited about it."
That Coleman and Smith went from expendable in one city to key contributors in Seattle is hardly a coincidence. Carroll and general manager John Schneider have had a knack over the years for finding players who thrive following a fresh start. Marshawn Lynch and Chris Clemons are two of the most obvious examples, but plenty of other players have found success in Seattle after struggling to fit in elsewhere. That was appealing to Smith, who was waived by the Eagles three years after they made him the 26th overall pick in the 2014 draft.
"It's just the overall organization, how Pete handles his players and how he allows them to have an opportunity to be able to make something of themselves, even if they didn't have a great start to their career," he said. "I know I didn't have a great start to my career, but I knew coming here, I could eventually revamp it and get back to where I want to be."
Smith figures to have a good opportunity to revamp his career with Avril sidelined. It will be Frank Clark stepping into a starting role, but Smith will see significant playing time off the bench, much like Clark has in the past playing behind Avril and Michael Bennett. It's a similar scenario at cornerback if Lane can't go. Lane is usually Seattle's starting right corner, but moves to the nickel spot with Shaquill Griffin coming in as the third corner when the Seahawks play nickel. If Lane is out, Griffin becomes an every-down player at right corner, while Coleman takes over the nickel role.
Carroll and other coaches have raved about Griffin's play thus far, but after being beat for a touchdown last week despite good coverage, he's hungry to show that won't happen again.
"I'm really hard on myself when it comes to stuff like that," Griffin said. "Coaches tell me, 'Everybody gets paid just like you do,' but the thing is, I just don't like giving up a ball. That's just my competitive side of it. My whole thing is to compete; I don't like to lose, so I'm going to be harder on myself than the coaches. I feel like that's what makes me who I am."
And while Griffin didn't like giving up that score, he thinks it will be good for him.
"I needed that to happen, because I felt like after that play, it woke up something different that I needed to come out," he said. "After that play happened, I was pretty much out there saying, 'You're not catching nothing else.' That's the type of person I am, I love to compete… I don't like losing, and one play doesn't define who I am. You think you can beat me, you've got to beat me more than once. I'm glad it happened this game. I remember (Thomas) coming to me after the game and saying, 'They finally got you, huh Shaq?' I said, 'Yeah, but they woke up something different.' I can't wait until the next game."
When Sherman complains about teams avoiding him in games, Griffin tells him eventually teams won't be able to avoid one side of the field because, as he improves, "Sooner or later there's going to be two shutdown corners." That might sound ambitious, but as loaded as Seattle's defense is—not just in top-end talent, but in overall depth—being good at every position, no matter who is in the game, is a more realistic goal than it has been in years.
"We feel real confident in our depth," Wright said. "That depth is real critical for us, especially going down the stretch of the season. You need guys to step up, you need guys to come in and make big plays for you. This is really going to help us out down the stretch, and that's when you really see how important it is to have those guys come through."