Before the Seahawks had the best defense in the NFL, and before Russell Wilson, Marshawn Lynch, Doug Baldwin and others helped form one of the league's most explosive offenses, Pete Carroll's team excelled on special teams.
Those 2010 Seahawks who went 7-9 and lacked most of the key players who make up the current roster, they might have had a ways to go on offense and defense, but from Day 1 Carroll's team was one of the best in the NFL on special teams. Part of that was the presence of return specialist Leon Washington, part of it was the coaching of special teams coach Brian Schneider, and part of it had to do with the fact that the Seahawks simply take special teams play more seriously than some other NFL teams. Throughout Carroll's tenure, starters, and even Pro Bowl players making big money have done the dirty work on special teams.
But in 2014, the Seahawks took a step back in the third phase of the game. Part of that was injuries to some key special teams contributors, and part of it was the departures of returners Golden Tate and Percy Harvin. The analytic website FootballOutsiders.com uses a statistic called DVOA to try to rank teams in every facet of the game, and on special teams the Seahawks were ranked 19th last season after ranking in the top five in three of the previous four seasons. Or if you prefer more traditional stats, a good example is the Seahawks ranking 30th in kick return average (21.0) and 25th in punt return average (7.0).
Starting with Sunday's opener in St. Louis, the Seahawks expect their special teams play to go back to being one of their biggest strengths.
"As far as health and the guys we have here, this is as complete as we've been," Schneider said.
There might not be a better opportunity for the Seahawks to show just how far they have come on special teams than a season opener at St. Louis. The Rams are known as a team willing to not just attempt big plays on special teams, but to execute them well and in big moments. The Rams won last year's meeting in St. Louis largely because of two trick plays—a punt return in which the team blocked as if a punt were going to one side of the field when it actually went to the opposite side where Stedman Bailey was all alone to make an over-the-shoulder catch, then return it for a score; and a fourth-quarter fake punt from inside their own 20-yard line while clinging to a 2-point lead.
"Absolutely, this is as difficult as a team as you play," Carroll said. "They may be as complex as all the teams put together in all of the things that they do, and so we've been preparing all camp to be well versed in all of the different things we have to do, and being this is the opener, it's great preparation for us, because we have to be wide open about their fakes, their deceptives, all the things that they can do, and they execute really well. And they're very bold about the things they do, so there's a lot of issues there. It's good for us."
"We're definitely on guard," added linebacker Brock Coyle. "We're going to be alert, ready for anything, and just ready to play a great game."
One player who was not available to help stop those trick plays last year is fullback Derrick Coleman, who broke his foot in warmups for that game. He remembers that day and those plays well, however, and believes his team is better prepared this time around for whatever the Rams have in store.
"After last year, we're aware of everything," Coleman said. "Watching film, everybody knows what they've been doing the last few years, so we'll just study everything we can and try to eliminate those plays. If they get something on us, if they out-scheme us, good for them, but we're going to everything in our power to stop them."
Coleman is just one player who missed a significant portion of last season and who is expected to be a big special teams contributor this season. Linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis was big on special teams before suffering a season-ending shoulder surgery, and while defensive end Cassius Marsh didn't do much on special teams before going down with a foot injury early in the season, he has looked like one of Seattle's best players on kick and punt coverage this preseason. Players like Coyle, Pierre-Louis, Marsh, Coleman, Ricardo Lockette, Marcus Burley, Steven Terrell, Mike Morgan (who won't play this week because of a hamstring injury) and DeShawn Shead help make up a special teams nucleus that the Seahawks hope will make them better not just this week against the Rams, but all season long.
"We're really excited about the potential, we're going to get checked out as much as you can this first week, but over the long haul we should be very effective," Carroll said. "We really have high expectations for that."
And of course any discussion about improvement on special teams has to include the addition of rookie Tyler Lockett, Seattle's third-round pick out of Kansas State. Lockett has shown serious big-play potential in the preseason, returning a kickoff 103 yards for a score, a punt 67 yards for a touchdown and catching a 63-yard touchdown pass.
"He's like a 10-year pro in his rookie year the way he prepares," Schneider said "Everyone's has the utmost confidence in him, and the sky's the limit for what he can do. If he's just himself, that's really, really good. You just trust him to make good decisions, and big things are going to happen hopefully with him in there."
It's not fair to expect a return touchdown every other game during the regular season, but even if Lockett can't maintain that pace, the threat of his big-play ability is enough to help the Seahawks. When Washington returned two kicks for touchdowns early in the 2010 season, Schneider noticed that teams just stopped kicking deep. At that point Washington wasn't getting long returns, but the Seahawks were still getting great field position.
"We don't care how long our returns are, we just care where we give the ball to the offense," Schneider said. "… We don't ever talk about return average, we just talk about starting field position."