Forget that don’t-fraternize-with-opponents-
before-a-game stuff. When Pete Carroll walks onto the field here today he’s going to seek Mark Sanchez.
He’s going to walk up this former protégé and …
“Punch him?” Carroll joked about his former USC quarterback now leading the Eagles (9-3) against Carroll’s Seahawks (8-4) Sunday at Lincoln Financial Field.
“No, maybe he’d give me a shot in the ribs or something,” Carroll continued about the 28-year-old QB with whom he and USC won the 2009 Rose Bowl. “There’s no question, though, that we have great familiarity. I think the world of him and I’m really excited for his opportunities and all that.”
Then, in the next breath, Carroll cut to the Seahawks’ chase of a playoff spot.
“We’d like to bang him around a little bit if we get a chance,” he said.
That’s the game plan for the league’s top-ranked defense here, where NFC East-leading Philadelphia has won 10 straight home games: gang up and throttle LeSean McCoy, the NFL’s third-leading rusher, and put the game in the sometimes-error-making hands of Sanchez in his fifth start in two years.
Sanchez, the deposed New York Jet, has lost two fumbles and thrown six interceptions in the 41/2 games he’s played since Nick Foles injured his shoulder in Philadelphia’s win at Houston in early November.
Yet the Eagles have won four of the five games Sanchez has played, behind McCoy and a big-risk, big-play defense that gets sacks and forces almost as many turnovers as the offense gives away.
“It starts with McCoy, first and foremost,” Seahawks linebacker K.J. Wright said of the slithering Eagle who has 1,018 yards rushing, most of those outside off cuts and jukes. “If we can make this game lopsided and put the ball in Mark Sanchez’s hands, it will all be about getting the pass rush and making him nervous back there.”
Seattle’s defense has been making many opposing players nervous lately. The return of middle linebacker Bobby Wagner from five games out with a torn ligament and broken bone in his foot, plus the refreshed body of strong safety Kam Chancellor after he took two games off last month to rest his aching hip, groin and bone spurs in his ankles, has revitalized the defense and the entire team. The Seahawks have been hitting, flying to the ball, celebrating and taunting like it’s 2013 again.
Actually, it’s been better.
Seattle’s six total points and 368 combined yards allowed in wins over Arizona and San Francisco were more dominant than the defense was at any point last season while winning the Super Bowl. Richard Sherman had two interceptions last week in the 19-3 win on Thanksgiving, and the Seahawks have forced four turnovers the last two games. In their eight victories, they have 14 of their 18 takeaways this season. They are plus-8 in turnover margin over the last five games, four of them wins.
“They’re coming for us in bunches and droves. Like I said before, I told you we just needed to catch our rhythm. And we’ve started to catch our rhythm,” said Sherman.
The NFC defensive player of the week has 23 interceptions over his first four NFL seasons. That’s the most in the league since Kenny Easley had 24 for the Seahawks from 1981-84. The NFL record for most picks over a player’s first four seasons is 25 by Oakland’s Lester Hayes (1977-80) and Dallas’ Everson Walls (1981-84).
Sherman thinks the increase in forcing turnovers is a result of the defense get healthier. Nose tackle Brandon Mebane (out for the season with a torn hamstring) will again be the only starter not playing on defense against the Eagles. That’s after months of pain for Wagner, Chancellor and cornerback Byron Maxwell.
“It think it comes with continuity, the continuity that we’ve gotten from obviously guys playing for extended amounts of time nowadays,” Sherman said. “Bobby being back, Byron being back, Kam being back and healthy … we’re enjoying the health we’re having so far.”
Now that defense — like the Eagles — is coming off 10 days between games. The Seahawks are going to need that freshness. Philadelphia coach Chip Kelly’s go-go offense leads the league in plays run. It is fourth in the NFL in points (31.3) and yards (416.2) per game.
Kelly, the former Pac-12 rival coach of Carroll’s at Oregon, will try to get McCoy and wide receiver Jeremy Maclin (71 catches, 1,088 yards and nine touchdown catches) in favorable matchups in the open field outside.
Wagner says good luck with that. He’s been slamming supposedly open fields closed in his two weeks back from injury.
“Teams try to look for (creating) matchup problems against us, and they don’t find many — if any. Because we’ve got the talent across the board,” Wagner said. “We’ve got the linebackers that can run with tight ends and a running back. We’ve got safeties that are big enough to hit the bigger running backs.
“So we’re not worried about the matchups. I think they are more worried about the matchups than we are.”
“They are one of the toughest groups you ever get to play against in the league,” Sanchez said of the Seahawks. “They fly around. They hit. They’re unselfish. They have fun. You just see their passion. And they’re just really smart on top of it.
“They play really sound and that’s all of the things that Coach Carroll used to preach to the defense and to the whole team when we were at SC.”
On offense, the Seahawks are facing an Eagles team with 42 sacks, second only to Buffalo’s 48. Outside linebacker Connor Barwin is second in the league with 121/2 sacks. His speed off the edges will be a huge challenge for a Seattle offensive line that has struggled the past two seasons consistently protecting quarterback Russell Wilson.
The last time the Seahawks faced a defense that brings as much pressure from every which way as Philadelphia does, Arizona dumped Wilson seven times last month.
“They fly around. They’re high-effort guys, they have great talent on the defensive side of the football … you can definitely notice that on film,” Wilson said. “They’re electric on defense. We have to play great football: protect it up, get the ball out on time, throw the ball to the right guy at the right time, continue to stay on the field and get first downs.”
The Seahawks held a walk-through practice inside a gym on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania here on Saturday. … After the walk-through, the Seahawks announced they had signed wide receiver Chris Matthews off their practice squad to fill the spot on the 53-man active roster that had been open since rookie linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis went on injured reserve last weekend.