The Biggest Thing Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick Have in Common


At first glance, Pete Carroll and Bill Belichick have a lot in common.

They're both defensive minds who have made legendary careers out of coaching on opposite coasts - except, of course, when Carroll coached in Foxboro before Belichick. They have respect for football tradition and history, honoring that legacy with a consistent run game and an investment in the defensive front seven. Their coaching genius shows in two of the best NFL defenses seen in decades: Carroll built Seattle's "Legion of Boom," and Belichick created the NFL's No. 1 defense a year ago.

They often opt for reserved, calculated moves rather than flashy ones, both in games and in offseason acquisitions. But when they strike boldly, they strike hard, like snatching up Jamal Adams or Stephon Gilmore in trades, or not calling a time out at the end of a Super Bowl. They usually come out of each move victorious - but when they play against each other, it is truly anybody's game.

Carroll and Belichick have led two of the most stable and successful NFL franchises to the Super Bowl multiple times in the past decade, facing each other one of those times.

Coaches like them almost operate in a different NFL, a different mind space that has a storied, educated approach to football. How can you outsmart two men who have seen it all after lifetimes in the league? There is a reason Carroll and Belichick are still here - they're still too good to hang it up just yet.

And perhaps that's because of the biggest thing they have in common: respect for defensive genius Monte Kiffin and his game-changing philosophies.

Kiffin's NFL

Anyone who really knows their NFL greats knows how Monte Kiffin changed the defensive game. If you've heard of Tampa 2 or are a Bucs fan grateful for their singular 2002 Super Bowl win, it's all thanks to him.

Alongside Hall of Fame coach Tony Dungy, Kiffin developed a Cover 2 defense derived from Chuck Noll's dominant 1970s "Steel Curtain" defense. Tampa Cover 2 is popular because it's simple yet effective: it's a 4-3 defense with two cornerbacks and two safeties in zone coverage, except when the MLB spots a pass play and drops deep into coverage as if he's in Cover 3. When looking at a photo of Tampa 2, it's easy to understand why it remains the defensive scheme of choice for the Buccaneers, the Colts, the Bears and the Giants. 

Notably, it's not what the Seahawks employ on defense. Instead, the Seahawks run a specific brand of Cover 3, but it's a Cover 3 derived from - you guessed it - Monte Kiffin.

Back in 1977, Kiffin was a coach at the University of Arkansas alongside Lou Holtz, another football coaching legend in the making. But at that time, Holtz was the head coach and Kiffin was the defensive coordinator. They interviewed an energetic 25-year old graduate assistant named Pete Carroll. Within a few weeks, Carroll made quite the impression on Kiffin, according to Sheil Kapadia's 2016 ESPN profile on the two coaches. Kiffin described recognizing greatness in the young defensive assistant:

"Then about a month later [after hiring] or so, [Holtz] said, 'Who’s that young guy in the back of the room?' Now, Pete was 25 at the time. He looked like he was 18. I said, ‘Well, that there is Pete Carroll, coach. We hired him a month or so ago. Get to know him because he won’t be here long.'"

That statement proved accurate. Carroll left Arkansas after a year, but in 1980, he found another job with Kiffin at North Carolina State. In that narrow time span, the eager Carroll had already worked his way up to earn a defensive coordinator position. Here's his resume when he joined the NC State Wolfpack:

"Pete Carroll, 29, is in his first season at N. C. State and is the defensive coordinator as well as the defensive back coach. Prior to coming to State, Pete coached at University of the Pacific, Arkansas, Iowa State and Ohio State. At Ohio State, three of his defensive backs were named all-Big 10 in 1979. He was an all-Pacific Coast Conference safety in 1971 and 1972 while playing for the University of the Pacific."

Carroll left the position in 1982, building an illustrious career throughout the NFL and collegiate world before landing aloft his Seattle perch in 2010. Although 43 years have passed since that landmark 1977 season, Carroll gives Kiffin all the credit for his strong defensive foundations.

"I owe him everything," Carroll said back in 2016. "He taught me everything I know about defense."

Belichick's Will

Carroll is not the only coach interested in utilizing Kiffin's strategies. The only comparable head coach in age, wisdom, and mindset, Belichick is also aware that Kiffin is a defensive genius. He has been so enamored with Kiffin's coaching that in 2008, he coaxed then-Broncos safety John Lynch to delay retirement and join the Patriots. A friend to any true student of the game, Belichick and Lynch talked for hours about life and football as Belichick buttered him up to consider a linebacker role in a nickel defense. Although Belichick succeeded in keeping Lynch through training camp, Lynch realized quickly after Week 1 that it was time for him to hang up his cleats. But before he did, the coach made it clear that he was interested in gleaning more from Lynch than his on-field capabilities.

Belichick, as was suggested in ESPN’s “Outside The Lines’’ report, got Lynch on the chalkboard and asked him questions about Kiffin, the safety’s former defensive coordinator with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. And while many are critical of Belichick’s gamesmanship, Belichick sounds like an earnest teacher of the game, eager to learn from one of his new pupils.

“He and I had a unique relationship,’’ Lynch said. “I joke with him often that he was trying to pick my brain. He was always fascinated with Monte Kiffin, what we did down in Tampa. So a lot of it, he had me on the chalkboard, telling me, ‘Alright, so how would Monte do this?’ I told him that’s the only reason he brought me there, to pick my brain on Monte Kiffin. But we had a great time and have a great relationship to this day because of it.’’

Belichick acknowledged Carroll's coaching foundations in a conference call with Seattle journalists earlier this week.

"Pete's a football guy," Belichick said. "He's got a great background, of course defensively and then as a head coach, both in this league and then in college, and then his career at Seattle."

In fact, the stability of Seattle is so renowned that Belichick has full faith in the players he picks up from Carroll's defense, such as former Seahawks/Patriots cornerback Brandon Browner.

"[The Seahawks] know the type of program they're going to run, they know what it takes to be successful in that program," Belichick said. "Pete's very consistent, and we've had players that have come from there, and when you have a player to plays for Pete, you know you're getting a certain type of player - if the guy doesn't really love football and want to play football and play hard and is passionate about it, then Seattle's probably not the right place for him. New England's probably not the right place either."

Before their 2015 Super Bowl matchup, Belichick revealed that he respects Carroll's coaching more than anyone else's in the NFL, likely because Carroll's defense has remained a force to be reckoned with throughout the past decade.

“Not a coach in the NFL I respect more than Pete Carroll,” Belichick said in 2015. “He’s a tremendous coach. He and I have kind of come up together in roughly the same era. We’ve both been defensive coordinators, we’ve both been head coaches. I have a ton of respect for what Pete does as a coach, how good of a fundamental teacher he is, the way his teams play. I’ve studied him from afar. We’ve never worked together, studied Pete from afar over a long period of time. I’ve learned a lot from what he does, and indirectly, I think he’s made me a better coach. I have all the respect in the world for Pete and his staff.”

While he questioned John Lynch directly about Kiffin, Belichick has studied Carroll's defensive scheme for decades - he knows exactly where it comes from.

“I think coach Carroll will tell you that their defense is pretty much the defense that he learned and coached in 1977 at Arkansas,” Belichick said. “He’s been doing it a long time. I’d say they’ve gone up against everything they can go up against: great quarterbacks, great receivers, great running games, great offensive lines. They’ve always been good. I think that they have a great system.”

Although Carroll's defense has remained the same, the fact that Belichick is familiar with his roots makes the outcome of their Sunday night showdown that much less predictable. 

Game, Set, Match Coverage

When you look at Carroll's defense, it seems deceptively simple. The Seahawks play in a 4-3 Cover 3 defense. "Cover 3" means there is a three-zone coverage in the secondary covered by a free safety and two cornerbacks. So for a decade, the Seahawks have run something a little like this:

Every portion of the field is covered with zones, but the pitfall of zone coverage is its limitations along each edge. If a quarterback and his receivers run routes along the edges of each bubble of coverage, it's easy to snag a first down and more. But Carroll doesn't run a typical Cover 3, thanks to Kiffin. He's adapted some of his mentor's defensive tenets to combine the best of zone and man coverage.

Carroll's modified Cover 3 employs something called "match coverage." Here's the real secret behind the Seahawks defense: they play zone, but they are so talented at predicting routes that it greatly reduces the limitations of zone coverage. In other words, because the Seahawks are full of well-trained, prepared defensive players, they are able to predict the routes and anticipate where receivers will wind up, which is essentially like an informed zone coverage. If you know where players will be, you know how to play your zone, meaning you can greatly reduce the chance of big gains and breakaway scoring plays.

In Week 1 against the Falcons, the modified Cover 3 is on full display. Despite Matt Ryan's 420 yards, defensive players like Lano Hill, Quinton Dunbar, and Shaquill Griffin made several key plays. While Atlanta speedsters Julio Jones, Russell Gage Jr. and Calvin Ridley used their agility to break out of coverage for over 100 yards apiece, it was still a strong outing against a very capable passing offense.

That's because Carroll has taken Kiffin's most important values to heart and implemented them on his defense. Kiffin prioritized the following during his coaching career:

-Speed over size and strength

-Bend, don't break, defense

-Multiple defenses from one look

-Aggressive attacks that result in turnovers

That's exactly what we saw from Seattle last Sunday: a dynamic, nimble defense that kept up with Atlanta enough to limit scores and attacked for low third and fourth down conversion rates. The "speed over strength" applies to guys like Bobby Wagner, a commanding middle linebacker that can drop in coverage and neutralize any mid-field play. After eight years on the defense, Wagner is deeply familiar with his role in Carroll's distinct Cover 3.

"It’s more advanced in the sense of route recognition and players," Wagner said in 2016. "You have to have a better understanding of route recognition and understanding that as the routes get downfield, you have to match them."

And with the newly-acquired Adams, the Seahawks have that unpredictable "X-factor" that can be disguised by Carroll's trademark defense.

A commander of his zone, cornerback Richard Sherman put it best when describing Carroll's defense: even if you know what the Seahawks run, it doesn't mean you're going to beat them on the play.

"There’s always a ton of questions going into the week of how we’re going to change and do this," Sherman said back in 2016. "For five, six years now, we’ve answered that question the same exact way by playing the same way we always play. There are times where other teams are trying to figure out what we’re doing like we’ve changed something over the years, like we’ve changed coverages, like we do something exotic. We don’t do anything exotic. We play as hard as we can as long as we can, and we make you deal with us."

A Battle Against Coaching Compatriots

When it comes to predicting what the Patriots will do at CenturyLink Sunday night, it's both easier and more difficult than previous years. On the Patriots, veteran Tom Brady knew how to carve up just about any defense with his corps of receivers - but last year, the dearth of receivers caused New England to tailspin in the second half of the season. With Cam Newton as the quarterback, there's less of a risk for those narrow passing-windows, but his entire style of play is fairly unpredictable - because of coronavirus, the Seahawks only have one week of game tape to analyze.

The biggest question is how Carroll's Seahawks can contain Newton's running ability and his capacity to bulldoze defenders for significant gains. If the Seahawks can read carefully, they can send Jamal Adams to run the middle on RPOs while calling on Bruce Irvin or Benson Mayowa to contain off the edge. RPOs are challenging, especially with a quarterback who can truly do it all like Newton - but if there's any defense that can read the Patriots, it's going to be the Seahawks.

On that conference call earlier this week, Belichick confirmed that the Seahawks remain one of the toughest opponents for a consistent New England team.

"[The Seahawks] go out there and play hard, play competitive every week, it doesn't matter where it is or who it is or what the circumstances are," Belichick said. "They came in here and handled us in 2016. It was a great football game, it was as competitive of a game as I think as we've ever played in this stadium. We've played a lot of them, a lot of big ones, but that was a great football game—two evenly matched teams and they got the better of us. That's the type of effort you get from Pete and the Seahawks."

That effort, something derived from Kiffin and admired by Belichick, creates an unparalleled coaching match in the NFL that is a sight to see every time these two have the chance to meet.