Why Seattle’s DBs Rule
PHOENIX — Ask any teacher of football what the best tangible evidence of good coaching is and he’ll tell you it’s when you see everyone in the same position group all play with the exact same mechanics and techniques. By this criteria, the Seahawks secondary is far and away the best-coached unit in the NFL.
General manager John Schneider gets credit, and deservedly so, for finding so many lanky, physical cornerback gems near the bottom of the NFL’s barrel. By now you know the lineup: Richard Sherman, fifth-round pick in 2011; Brandon Browner (now a Patriot), undrafted out of the CFL in 2011; Browner’s replacement, Byron Maxwell, a sixth-rounder in 2011; Tharold Simon, the starter-in-waiting with Maxwell likely to sign for big money elsewhere in free agency, was taken in the fifth round in 2013. The year before Simon there was slot extraordinaire Jeremy Lane in the sixth round. There’s also Marcus Burley, who is smaller than his cohort but was effective when pressed into the slot this season.
And then there are safeties Earl Thomas (first round, 2010) and Kam Chancellor (fifth round, 2010), two of the league’s very best.
All of these are talented players, but Schneider is not hitting home run after home run late in the draft. Instead, he’s finding moldable players who are being coached extremely well.
Meet Kris Richard (pronounced Ri-shard), Seattle’s defensive backs coach. Sports Illustrated’s Doug Farrar wrote a fantastic piece on the 35-year-old assistant earlier this week. The cliff notes: Richard played corner for Pete Carroll’s Trojans and had an unspectacular five-year NFL career before getting into coaching in 2008, when he joined Carroll’s staff at USC. He followed Carroll to Seattle. And after this season he’ll either follow Dan Quinn to Atlanta to become the defensive coordinator there, or he’ll replace Quinn as defensive coordinator in the Emerald City. Either way, Richard is about to become the next “talked about” NFL coordinator.
“With [Coach Richard] you learn to be a technician," says Simon. “He always preaches that football is about angles—to take away angles when you play inside and when you play outside. He’s taught me to read different route combinations and to learn different routes that guys run out of different formations.”
In Seattle, learning technique takes priority over everything else, including the scheme. “If you get the technique down, that’ll make you a much better player," says Burley. If they don’t, they won’t play.
While Carroll is known to take an active interest in the secondary, it’s Richard who is helping the players hone their all-important technique. We think of Seattle defensive backs for their grabby hands and strong upper bodies, but what Richard preaches first and foremost is feet. Players are mum on the specifics of the footwork technique; the only light shed on it comes from Maxwell, who says, “Step-kick is a technique we do. It’s what they teach you at the line of scrimmage. It really slowed the game down for me. That’s how I took off.”
It’s not just the corners reaping the benefits of Richard’s lessons. “Kris taught me a lot,” says Chancellor. “That’s a guy who’s definitely a student of the game.… He puts us in situations where we can capitalize on our strengths.”
“[Richard is] a real product of our system,” says Carroll. “He’s obviously a guy that we raised up in the system and we’re proud of the job that he does. He has gone beyond maybe what normal expectations [are] for such a young career for him. We rely on him heavily. He’s done a fantastic job for us.”
Cover 3 Beater Revisited
Back in Week 3, the Denver Broncos nearly pulled off a remarkable comeback in Seattle on the strength of their downfield bombs designed specifically to exploit the Seahawks’ Cover 3 foundation. The pivotal play was a 42-yard pass to Emmanuel Sanders, which was thrown out of an empty 3 x 2 spread set. This is a formation the Patriots use with semi regularity. And when Tom Brady throws deep by design, it’s often to his left, which is where this play went.
Figuring Seattle must be ready to combat a similar look this Sunday—not so much because throwing deep is New England’s forte (it’s not), but because the NFL, as you’ve heard, is a copycat league—I visited with Byron Maxwell about what he learned on this sequence. He broke it down through hindsight.
Maxwell also talked about needing to trust his safety here. In this play, it was Chancellor back deep. Typically, it’ll be the rangier Thomas, who is much more comfortable in space. (My analysis, not Maxwell’s.) It’s not always easy to trust your safety against a quarterback like Manning—or Brady. They’re shrewd at manipulating that centerfielder with their eyes. It’s critical that Maxwell, who has improved greatly this season, makes the stop against this look.
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