Coaches will tell you that it's not how you start, it's how you finish, and that's certainly true of this season's Seattle Seahawks team. No Super Bowl winner since the 2004-2005 New England Patriots has won a playoff game the following season, and most defenses that sat on a historic curve as Seattle's 2013 unit did are generally in for some fairly serious regression. Last season, the Seahawks' defense ranked seventh among all single-season defenses since 1989 in Football Outsiders' opponent-adjusted metrics, and the average regression among the top 13 defenses in that timeframe was 20 percent in FO's overall efficiency ratings -- a pretty severe dropoff. Seattle does rank fourth in FO's metrics this season as opposed to first in 2013, but that has more to do with early-season issues than anything that's happening now.
On Nov. 23, the Seahawks stood at 6-4, sporting a defense that had just been thrashed by the Kansas City Chiefs' rushing attack to the tune of 204 yards. With two games in five days against the Arizona Cardinals and San Francisco 49ers, not to mention last's Sunday's contest against the Philadelphia Eagles, Seattle and head coach Pete Carroll were in for a major series of fights or, so it seemed. Seattle beat the Cards and 49ers by matching 19-3 scores, and followed that up with a 24-14 win over the Eagles, and Chip Kelly's combustible offense. And in those three games, Seattle allowed just 204, 164 and 139 total yards, respectively, while picking up six turnovers and giving up just 37 total first downs in the three wins.
Is this the same defense it was a year ago, or is the late-season incarnation this year playing at an even higher clip? Based on the last three weeks, and the trends that seem to be coming up from several different positions, it could be argued that this is as good as we've seen from the pieces Carroll has put together.
"Regardless of whatever happened in the beginning of this year, we would have liked to have been in this position right now with a chance to win our division, and we are," Carroll said this week. "We’re there—regardless of what happened. If we had won every game, we’d be in the same position right now wanting to figure out how we can finish this thing off right so we can win our division so I don’t think it feels any different. I think as we look back, when we talk about it after the fact, there will be some drama to the story. I think we would have overcome a lot, but right now we’re in the middle of it, having a blast, and looking forward to a great week."
They've had quite a few great weeks lately, and that's bad news for the 49ers, who have to deal with this defense at Seattle's CenturyLink field on Sunday. Why are things different now? Let's take a look at eight total plays from the wins over Philadelphia and San Francisco.
One of the primary attributes this young defense brings to the field at a higher level than in 2013 is its ability to diagnose and adapt to specific offensive concepts. Here, Eagles tight end Zach Ertz catches a 35-yard touchdown pass from Mark Sanchez with 12:09 left in the third quarter. The Eagles lined up three-wide, with Ertz in formation on the left side. Pre-snap, halfback Darren Sproles went in bullet motion to the right, stretching out Seattle's defense to the other side. Ertz and receiver Riley Cooper switched on a crossing route a few yards past the line of scrimmage (the Eagles went with a cross on the other side of the field as well), which put linebacker K.J. Wright in the unfortunate position of having to catch up with Ertz as he was exchanging coverages with cornerback Byron Maxwell. The switch release concept is one of the few things that has given Seattle's defense fits this season, and that's why they've seen it all year -- Denver killed them with it late in a 26-20 Week 3 overtime loss. This was the same basic idea as was seen when Denver tight end Jacob Tamme beat Wright for a touchdown in that game -- hit the outside corner with a deep route to the seam, watch the safety play robber coverage, and run the tight end outside in a footrace with Wright.
However, cornerback Tharold Simon's interception in the fourth quarter came off the same basic offensive principle -- this time, the Seahawks had a couple of different wrinkles. This time, safety Kam Chancellor took Ertz upfield on the switch concept, and that took away one of Sanchez's reads. And with Richard Sherman taking the outside receiver inside this time, that side of the field was far less attractive than it had been. So, Sanchez went to his left, where the combination of halfback motion and crossing routes should create an open receiver. It did just that when Maxwell bit too hard on Sproles and ignored the upfield responsibility, but Sanchez missed Jordan Matthews running wide open. Instead, he threw to Cooper (actually, he underthrew to Cooper), and Simon had his first career interception.
"In general, guys understand what is asked of them so that they understand the scheme really well," Carroll said Wednesday when asked about the defense's ability to read and react at a higher level. "They know what their responsibilities are—to the point of that they can go to the next level of what the offense is doing, the strategy and tactics that they’re deploying, and then take all of that information and make use of it. It takes a while. It takes experience. It takes enough confidence in the scheme so that they can go to the next level of concern.
"You can’t just play and line up in the right spot, then what’s the offense doing, what are the looks, what’s the style, and the down and distance. We’re an experienced defense, these guys have been around—they’ve played together a lot, they can communicate on a really high level, they can make sense of things with a glance or with a word of what to expect or the alerts that need to be done—that’s a tremendously valuable asset. It allows a team that plays a fairly basic scheme play really fast and if there is anything that you should have witnessed here in the last month is that our team speed picked up. You can see us playing faster as we’re going and that’s in the continuity, that’s in the communication, that’s in the confidence from being together and being out there."
49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh mentioned recently that this defense is better at figuring things out of late, which gave Sherman the opportunity to expound on the reasons why.
"I think certain players were better at diagnosing than others at different points last year, and I think at one point we came together as a defense and started recognizing formations as an entire unit," Sherman said Wednesday. "Recognizing what we thought was coming, what plays were coming, what formations dictated certain things, understanding down and distance. Not just individuals, but as a unit and I think that has carried over to this year. I think that’s what’s helping us on this journey. This good run we’re on as a defense and as a team. It’s recognizing the formations, understanding how they’re trying to attack you, and that goes back to the continuity I talked about earlier this year. Having Bobby back, getting everybody back, Kam, Byron, having everybody out there because those are the guys who are used to being in those situations."
Maxwell can play well outside, but one reason Seattle's pass defense has been so ridiculously effective of late is his ability to play in the slot, with Simon using his size and physicality in a proto-Sherman outside role. This six-yard pass from Sanchez to Cooper with 8:06 left in the first quarter perfectly illustrates how well Maxwell can move and adapt to motion, and how the defense changes with him. Cooper moves from right slot to left H-back depth in motion, and looks to roll out into a quick out route. Maxwell closes quickly (another common characteristic of Seattle's defense - there aren't generally a lot of yards after catch here), and Philly's first drive stalls on third-and-10.
"It’s good because of his style of play," Carroll said of Maxwell in the slot, where he's given up seven catches in 15 targets for 70 yards and no touchdowns over the last four games. "When we play Jeremy [Lane] or Marcus [Burley] in there, they matched up differently with guys. [Philadelphia had] a really big slot in [Jordan] Matthews last week and I thought it was a just a nice matchup for Maxy —not that he can’t hang with other guys, but I thought it was just a good one to see. It gives us tremendous flexibility and as we’re rounding in this week, we have everyone available back there—it gives us some choices. As receivers and teams change their style of guys [in the slot], we have the flexibility to match up in pretty good fashion right now."
As for Simon, the second-year player from LSU has been impressing the team's coaches and players since he was selected in the fifth round of the 2013 draft out of LSU. He missed his rookie season with a foot injury, but everyone was excited to see what he could do in 2014 -- Sherman told me in the preseason that Simon had the potential to be every bit as good as he is. So far this season, Simon has allowed eight catches in 15 targets for 69 yards, no touchdowns, one interception and a 37.9 opposing quarterback rating in 160 snaps -- not even Sherman has a better opposing quarterback rating among Seattle's cornerbacks this season. Simon was a little twitchy in coverage early on, and he had a tendency to mistake defensive aggression for fighting stances, but he's figured out the balance between coverage and felonious assault the Seahawks demand from their defensive backs.
"I think he’s more poised now—he’s been in games, he’s been around," Carroll said of Simon this week. "I think he was a little desperate at times; just trying to make things happen and not let anybody get away from him. His conscience is very turned on about it now, and he’s really worked hard in practice to clean up that stuff, which always carries over to the game. He’s making progress—Sherm [Richard Sherman] has done a really good job working with him, Sherm’s really taken him under his wing. Sherm went through the same transition and his experience has helped. Tharold’s done a really good job of taking the information, listening, and allowing Sherm’s help to fit in.
Carroll and general manager John Schneider are noted for grabbing bargains in the late rounds of the draft, and defensive tackle Jordan Hill, who was taken in the third round of that same draft, has been invaluable of late in filling in for Brandon Mebane. In early November, when Mebane was lost for the remainder of the 2014 season to a hamstring injury, the worry about Seattle's defensive line was severe, and well-founded. Mebane has never made a Pro Bowl, but he's unquestionably one of the NFL's better defensive tackles, able to penetrate an offensive line to stop a play or pressure a quarterback as well as he takes on double-teams.
The Seahawks have taken a Moneyball approach to replacing him, using an aggregate to fill in admirably for a lost and invaluable player. Veteran Kevin Williams has played a lot at the one-tech position, soaking up those double teams, and Hill has added his own gift for pressure, amassing two sacks and six total quarterback pressures in the last three games alone. Moreover, Hill can chase and catch the league's elusive backs, as he showed when he took Sproles down for an eight-yard loss early in the second quarter.
"Kevin Williams has done really well—I’m really fired up about what he’s done," Carroll told me about that Mebane replacement aggregate. "He’s made the transition to somewhat of a new position for him and he’s been very effective. Like I’ve said before, his style is different, the make-up of his body is so much different, but he’s played really well. He’s a terrific football player and we’re lucky to have him on our team andI’m really thrilled at how he’s come through.
The Seahawks did the aggregate thing at right cornerback last season with Brandon Browner, then Walter Thurmond, then Maxwell, so working up to the theory was relatively easy for Carroll in 2014.
One Seahawks defender who isn't under the radar -- and for good reason -- is safety Kam Chancellor. The fifth-year pro, two-time Pro Bowler and the man who should have been the Super Bowl XLVIII Most Valuable Player came out of the game in 2014 in somewhat hesitant fashion, as he was dealing with various injuries. But recently, as is shown in this play against the 49ers on Thanksgiving night, the Seahawks' secondary enforcer is back to doing what he does best. This is San Francisco's second play from scrimmage, and its first pass play, and it's Chancellor who bogs it down from the lurk position (where he spends a great deal of his time) with impressive closing speed and a definitive tackle of receiver Michael Crabtree -- who was injured on the play. Crabtree returned, but caught three passes on 10 targets for 10 yards in the game.
"I think he feels really good about letting it rip and making all the plays he can make," Carroll said this week. "I think there was a time where he was concerned about making sure he didn’t get out of position in case he couldn’t get out of his breaks as well as he needed to. Anything that’s like that that takes you into your mind about being concerned, that you’re not quite all there, can take away from your play. He’s been cutting loose for a month now and really rolling. It shows up in every aspect of our game. It shows up in the locker room, it shows up on the practice field, and it shows up on the game field for certain and it’s wonderful to watch him cut loose and play his game."
Another player who has been of key importance to this defense is lineman Michael Bennett, who the Seahawks stole away from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before the 2013 season. Bennett signed a four-year, $28.5 million deal in the 2014 offseason, and he's been used a lot more in the current campaign -- 678 snaps through 13 games in 2014, versus 759 total in the 20 games in 2013 that ended with Seattle's Super Bowl win. The key to Bennett's game is his versatility -- even with the Bucs, he was known as a player who could get legitimate pressure everywhere from one-tech to outside linebacker, and he's doing more of that this season than at any other time in his career. Per Pro Football Focus, Bennett has 431 snaps this season at either left or right defensive end, 143 as a three-tech or five-tech pass-rushing defensive tackle, 80 snaps as a LEO end (left and right side), and even three snaps at nose tackle. There isn't much Bennett can't do, and he does it all at a very high level. Very few linemen match his effective versatility.
Here's Bennett getting a pressure on Colin Kaepernick and causing an errant throw with 10:15 left in the first quarter -- he beats left tackle Joe Staley with an inside counter move, and simply blows right by left guard Mike Iupati.
Less than a minute after that play, the Seahawks showed an interesting little wrinkle they've trotted out more of late -- putting Bennett and Cliff Avril on the same side, at end position, outside the tackle. On this play, Avril collapses the pocket from the outside (embarrassing right tackle Jonathan Martin in the process), while Bennett uses his speed to stunt inside and create chaos there. Notice on the other side of the line that Seattle called a cross-stunt with linebacker Bruce Irvin beating Staley outside, and linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis rolling over several gaps on an inside move. Result: Pretty much everyone arrives at the quarterback.
"I think it’s his quickness that really jumps out to us whether it’s at D-end or D-tackle," defensive coordinator Dan Quinn said of Bennett this week. "When we’re going through pass rush in a game, he could rush on all five of the offensive linemen, from right tackle to right guard and center. That’s how versatile he is for us, so when we do those kinds of drills, he has to make sure he’s getting all the looks and all the reps. So there’s a lot that goes into the preparation for him -- we put a lot on him and we certainly count on him to fill all these variety of roles and he never backs down from a challenge. That’s one of the things we all respect about Mike so much."
For Bennett, it's a matter of doing what needs to be done -- whatever and wherever that may be.
"I like playing that much but when they pay you a lot of money they want you on the field all the time. That’s just how it is. It doesn’t bother me. I’m just moving around a lot and trying to make as many plays as I can. I was telling somebody the other day, on this team; statistically you will never be at the top of any position like you want. You won’t have the most interceptions, you won’t have the most tackles, and you’ll just be on a really good defense that will play for each other. I think that’s what is so special about this team.
Most people who follow the NFL know that Sherman is one of the most productive -- loquacious -- players in the league, and he's certainly at or near the top of most lists when the league's best cornerbacks are discussed. But lately, Sherman has been a different level of lockdown -- over the last four games, he has allowed just two receptions for 18 yards, three yards after the catch, and an astounding 0.0 opponent quarterback rating. It's a pretty drastic turnaround from the team's first eight games, when he allowed 17 catches on 34 targets for 245 yards, 69 yards after the catch, and an opponent quarterback rating of 71.3.
Sherman's coverage attributes have been discussed quite often, but I like two things about his recent game -- his improved focus on tackling run plays, and his ability to stick and stay with receivers when ther quarterbacks leave the pocket, and route concept turn into general anarchy. Sherman's second interception against San Francisco illustrated the latter -- he stuck with Stevie Johnson through a quick comeback route to an adaptive upfield run. It's an important attribute against any quarterback who throws well outside the pocket.
As boastful as Sherman can sometimes be about his abilities, he deferred when I asked him about the numbers he's put up over the last month.
"I think it’s the whole defense," he said. "I think all of us are just playing for each other and having a blast. Anytime all 11 guys are out there having fun and sprinting around, hitting, and enjoying the moments, things like that are going to happen. You’re going to have great stats. I’m sure everybody has great stats like that throughout the whole defense. I’m sure you can look at Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright’s stats, I think he got a couple forced fumbles and Bobby leads the team in tackles every week. I mean that’s nothing new. Kam and Earl [Thomas] and Byron, you saw them all over the field last week. Our D-line has been playing incredibly. I think we’re top three in run defense right now. I think it’s a testament to the way everybody is playing I think those things, you’re playing tight coverage and doing everything you can --but without the team playing as well as they are some of those plays might get in there."
Few plays are getting in there now, which makes this team a pretty decent bet to reverse the recent historical issues that have plagued former champions on their current path.