Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas lead the way in Seattle's league-best secondary. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
There's been a lot said about the Seattle Seahawks' secondary this season, and the discussion seems to be evenly split between the group's predilection for postgame rants and issues with certain NFL policies as much as it's been about its tremendous play. And that's a shame, because this secondary has everything required to face off against Peyton Manning's offense in what will be a tremendous Super Bowl XLVIII matchup.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has been assembling great defenses for decades, but he's never had a back four quite like this one. Seattle's defense ranked first in just about every possible category traditional and sabermetric, and unlike most defenses, this one starts from the back and works its way up. As a result, the Seahawks had three players -- cornerback Richard Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor -- make the 2013 All-Pro team.
“I think it’s a great tribute to those guys and who they are and how they’ve prepared and how hard they’ve worked. I think it does demonstrate that if you play really well with the guys around you that it can help your play. These guys have fed off one another from the years that they’ve been here. The challenges of being the best and to work the hardest and to help each other be at their best, it’s given them a chance to really do something unique. Obviously this doesn’t happen very often. I think it’s a great tribute to [coaches] Dan [Quinn] and Kris Richard and Rocky [Seto]. Those guys have coached them over the years and brought them together, kept them tight and progressing them all the way throughout their career, and then kept them performing at a really high rate for a long time.
"Earl and Kam have both had recognition before in the Pro Bowl and Sherm with the All-Pro thing before. But that kind of recognition is really, individually, the ultimate when they pick the best guys on both sides of the league. So I know that they’re very proud and they’ve worked really hard for it. So we’re proud of them.”
Carroll should be proud of a secondary that is atypical as it is effective. Let's take a closer look at how it works.
Richard Sherman: The Mad Genius
Let's also dispense with the talk of Sherman's alleged "thuggery" -- we've got more than a week left to beat that story into the ground. What I'd like to discuss is Sherman's ability to read offensive intentions and use his physical abilities to counter what teams throw at him. In the 2013 regular season, Sherman was targeted 58 times on 549 defensive snaps, which is a league-low 10.56 percent among qualifying cornerbacks. And he still led the NFL with eight interceptions. In two playoff games, he was targeted twice -- yes, two times in two games -- with no catches against him. But Sherman is also directly responsible for two more interceptions that he wasn't specifically credited for -- Earl Thomas' pick in Seattle's 23-0 win over the New York Giants in Week 15, and Malcolm Smith's game-ender against the San Francisco 49ers that put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. In each case, Sherman was the instigator in a tip drill that Seattle's defense practices quite often.
Sherman has said in the past that it's his intelligence and not his athleticism that has taken him to the top, and he's not being disingenuous. He has pure track speed in a straight line and he's extremely technically proficient, but he can be had in zone coverages (which the Seahawks break into when opposing offenses run trips and bunch formations against them), and faster receivers will occasionally torch him. But he makes up for his few liabilities with an inherent understanding of route concepts gleaned from his time as a receiver at Stanford, and his exhaustive tape study habits give him a serious edge when deciphering what an offense is about to do.
Both tip drills came against number-one receivers, with Sherman playing single tight coverage and the second defender cheating over to catch the tip. Against the 49ers, it was Crabtree running a stutter-go to a fade. Sherman played this the way all Seattle cornerbacks are clearly taught -- keep with your man through any movement at the line of scrimmage, establish and maintain inside position, and consider that football yours.
The play against the Giants saw Hakeem Nicks running outside, Sherman staying tight and inside, and Thomas over from the middle with his demon speed (more on that later) to finish it off.
On Wednesday, I asked Sherman about the similarities between these two plays, and why he and the rest of Seattle's secondary are able to take practice to play so well.
“Because we practice hard," he said. "We really practice as hard as we possibly can. We practice like it’s a game, and I really give Pete Carroll a lot of credit for that and also Earl Thomas a lot of credit for the way our defensive backfield practices and our defense in general. He plays at such a high level, and he’ll be so frustrated if you’re not playing at a high level because it’s messing up his look -- because he doesn’t know where you’re going to be on gameday. If you’re going to be trailing, and he’s running full speed to save you, then be trailing so he can run full speed to save you. But if in a game you’re leading and he’s running full speed over there and wasting his time, it’s not a good look. We practice so hard that we’ve had those plays in practice, and in a game you don’t treat it any different. We go out there and execute what we’ve done in practice.
"That’s why moments like this, championship moments. NFC Championships, you get lost in them. You get lost in the game and you don’t realize you’re playing in the biggest game of your life, you just know that you’re trying to make plays. You’re trying to make sure they don’t score, you trying to do everything you can to make sure your team wins. If that’s tipping the ball to make sure that somebody has the [chance] to make a play, that’s what you’re doing, but that’s a testament to our practice habits.”
NEXT PAGE: Breaking down Kam Chancellor and the rest of the crew
Kam Chancellor: The Enforcer
Of all the main men in Seattle's secondary, perhaps no player exemplifies the opportunity to grow as a player more than Chancellor. He was taken in the fifth round of the 2010 draft because, while he had the size of a small linebacker at 6-foot-3 and 231 pounds, he was still putting everything together when it came to coverage. What Chancellor could do from the start was hit -- just ask Vernon Davis about that -- but it's his improving acumen when asked to cover the slots and flats that makes him specifically dangerous. Chancellor showed off his speed, backpedal and agility in this fourth-quarter interception of a Colin Kaepernick pass to Anquan Boldin in the NFC Championship game.
This play was interesting for a couple of reasons. When Boldin motioned from right to left pre-snap, Chancellor went down from zone seam responsibility to man at the line, moving Maxwell outside and the linebackers over. At the snap, Boldin ran a deep sideline route, and Chancellor took the under while Maxwell covered over the top. He had the edge on Kaepernick's iffy pass, and it was one of three fourth-quarter turnovers for the 49ers that sealed the game for Seattle.
"I think we're more similar than different," Thomas said last week when I asked him about his game and Chancellor's. I think what he brought to the team as far as wanting to be the enforcer or tackler, I saw that and said, 'I've got to add that to my game.' I think that particular trait about everybody as far as wanting to get better, wanting to be the best, wanting to be complete, we take stuff that we didn't have in our game first from Sherm, Kam, Brandon [Browner], Byron Maxwell, J-Lane [Jeremy Lane], that's what's going to take us over the top and separate. Because we're always searching and yearning to get better."
Earl Thomas: The Superstar
There's one thing common among each member of Seattle's secondary -- as bold and braggadocious as they may get at times, the talk turns quieter and far more respectful when the subject is Earl Thomas. Seattle's fourth-year safety is absolutely the beating heart of this defense in the way he makes plays from all over the field, in his preparation for every situation, and in the blazing intensity that tells everyone around him: you had best not screw up around here, because we play at a different level. Having covered this team all season, I can tell you there aren't many players I've ever seen that have been as dialed-in for a full year.
“Russell Wilson," Sherman told me, when I asked him if anyone else on the team was as fiercely intense as Thomas. "Those two, but I have never seen anybody else like that. Kam Chancellor also is in the sphere, but you don’t meet people like that every day, and I think whenever you’re talking about a true competitor, a true champion, a true football player who is passionate and loves his job and does everything he can to help his team win... if you’re not talking about Earl Thomas and Russell Wilson, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Of course, none of that happy stuff would matter if Thomas didn't have unreal physical talent -- and for all his coverage expertise, it's his closing speed that sets him apart from almost any defender you'll see.
Thomas’ pure range, read abilities and closing burst were certainly displayed with 6:31 left in the third quarter of Seattle's 14-9 win over the St. Louis Rams on Oct. 28. (Note: this play and others were outlined in this Nov. 1 article about Thomas). The Rams had second-and-9 at the Seattle 24. Quarterback Kellen Clemens could find nothing open against Seattle’s nickel-man coverage and started to scramble. Thomas was the sole deep defender because Chancellor came up pre-snap in a blitz look. When Clemens started running, Thomas was at the Seattle four-yard line between the hashes, and somehow made it to the left sideline to buzz Clemens and stop him for a six-yard gain. It was another situation in which a Rams skill position player would have had at least a first down were it not for Thomas violating all sorts of speed limits.
“Aw, man — that was unbelievable,” Sherman later said of that play. “But it’s Earl. He’s the kind of player that makes unbelievable plays look routine on the daily. A lot of people were like, ‘Oh my God. He came out of nowhere.’ But we were like, ‘Well. He does that all the time.’ And he’ll say it in practice. He’ll say, ‘If that was a game, I would’ve got you.’ He’ll say it to Russell, and then Russell will laugh. But he’s totally serious, and he came out of the middle of the field. He came out of the deep third. His reaction and his speed gives him the ability to be anywhere, at any time.”
Go back to that tip drill against the Giants and ask yourself how in the world Thomas made up that much ground in such a short time to grab Eli Manning's pass. Safe to say, Eli's brother will be asking questions about Thomas as he prepares for the Super Bowl.
Walter Thurmond, Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane: The Aggregate
Cornerback Brandon Browner's year-long suspension for various violations of the NFL's PED and substance-abuse policies marked the end of his time in Seattle, but the end was already near. Browner allowed two touchdowns and picked off just one pass in 38 targets in 2013, allowing an opponent quarterback rating of 78.8, by far the highest among Seattle starting defenders this season. When Walter Thurmond found himself out for four games due to his own violation of the league's drug policy, that left things up to Byron Maxwell, a sixth-round pick in 2011. Maxwell had already been getting snaps in Browner's place, and he really showed up when asked to start -- he intercepted four passes in 45 targets and allowed a quarterback rating of 47.8 -- only Sherman's 47.3 was lower on the team.
This pick in Seattle's Week 14 loss to the San Francisco 49ers is an excellent illustration of Maxwell's skills. Asked to cover Crabtree solo on a fade, Maxwell stuck to the 49ers' top receiver like flypaper, got inside position and jumped the pass. It showed that no matter who goes into that secondary, the fundamentals are the same.