Mike Wagner was watching last year’s Super Bowl on television from his Pittsburgh-area home. He watches most Super Bowls. And not as a mere fan but as an expert observer; he has won four of them.
When the two-time Pro Bowl safety on the famed “Steel Curtain” defense saw what the Seattle Seahawks did to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos, smashing the highest-scoring offense in any NFL season, 43-8, to win the Super Bowl last February, he called some of his former teammates.
“I was telling them, ‘That’s the closest I’ve seen a team play defense the way we did, and have the talented players to do it like we did,’ ” Wagner said this week from his office in Pittsburgh, where he is the vice president of private banking for First National Bank.
“The system they play. The way they play it. That defense, with the front four that can control the line of scrimmage like that, with linebackers that can stop the run but also can run with wide receivers, the physical cornerbacks — I can tell you, I was impressed.”
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In the debate on how these two seasons of Seahawks dominance rate among NFL defenses all time, it’s one thing for Seattle’s Michael Bennett to proclaim, “We’re the best defense to ever play football,” as he did last month. The glib defensive end says a lot of things.
But it’s another thing when a central member as perhaps the most dominant defense — certainly the most successful, in terms of Super Bowls won — says he might rate the Seahawks’ current unit as one of the best the game’s seen.
“Seattle’s defense, with how young it is and the talent pool that it has — if they don’t get banged up — there’s no reason they can’t be one of the top-tier defenses ever in the league,” Wagner said.
His Steelers, with Hall of Fame coach Chuck Noll, won their four Super Bowls in six years. It was before and after the league instituted the so-called “Mel Blount rule” to eliminate contact with receivers at any time more than 5 yards from the line of scrimmage. The most revolutionary rule that helped turn the NFL into an offensive showcase was nicknamed after the mauling Steelers cornerback who used to flatten receivers anywhere on the field before the ball was in the air.
Imagine Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor getting to do that.
Asked how these Seahawks would have fared in the 1970s, Wagner almost shouted through the phone from Pittsburgh.
“Oh, they would have killed people!” Wagner said. “No question.”
The defense of the Seahawks (12-4) has pretty much been killing foes lately entering Saturday night’s NFC divisional playoff against the Carolina Panthers (8-8-1) at CenturyLink Field. Wagner noted how remarkable Seattle defense has been to watch in this era of the NFL legislating the game so offenses can flourish. Quarterbacks and receivers operate in no-huddle and spread schemes while so protected they can almost play flag football.
Despite that, these Seahawks have held foes to 39 points (6.5 points per game) during their six-game winning streak. That’s the fewest points allowed over the final six games of any 16-game regular season, which the league has played since 1978.
Wagner’s 1976 Steelers allowed a microscopic 28 points over the final nine games of their 14-game regular season.
Seattle’s six-game surge coincided with the return to health of All-Pro middle linebacker Bobby Wagner. The two touchdowns Philadelphia scored on the Seahawks in early December came after Seattle punter Jon Ryan dropped a snap for a turnover inside his own 20 and Seattle’s kickoff team allowed an Eagles’ return to midfield.
Otherwise, the Seahawks might be allowing just four points a game and no more than seven in any one contest since mid-November. That would be barely more than the 3.1 points per game those ’76 Steelers allowed to end their legendary regular season.
This Seahawks team is the first to lead the NFL in scoring defense over three consecutive seasons since the 1969-71 Minnesota Vikings’ “Purple People Eaters,” and only the third ever. The other: the Cleveland Browns of 1953-57.
But what good is a great defense if it doesn’t win a title? Those Vikings never won a Super Bowl. The Browns won two league championships in that pre-Super Bowl era. But comparing 1955’s NFL offenses to those of 2014 is like comparing a Packard Clipper to a Bugatti — you just don’t do that.
The Seahawks are the fourth team to lead the league in fewest points and fewest yards allowed in back-to-back regular seasons. The last to do that: Mike Ditka’s 1985-86 Chicago Bears. Incidentally, current Carolina Panthers coach Ron Rivera was a linebacker on those teams.
Last year’s Seahawks also led the league in pass defense and takeaways. This season’s unit led in pass defense again and were second in yards allowed per rush.
What’s Ditka take on these Seahawks?
“Well, they are pretty darn good. I don’t know what you can say — they are pretty darn good,” Ditka told Seattle’s 710 ESPN radio this week.
As for where they might rank all time, Ditka said: “I don’t think that really matters. It only matters that that defense is playing today.
“And don’t forget: I had a great defense in ’85, (Warren) Sapp had a great defense (in Tampa Bay), but there weren’t the number of weapons and formations then that there are now,” Ditka said. “There are so many more ways to attack a defense now then there were back then. Period.
“I mean, I don’t care what you look at. You look at these offensive formations now and the players they have lining up in four-receivers, three-receivers sets, it’s pretty hard to cover. Because you can’t play conventional … you are going to have to go to some ‘nickel’ (an extra, fifth) defensive back — or you are going to get hurt.”
The last two seasons the Seahawks have used their base defense of a 4-3 with 3-4 principles — a nose tackle offset over the center, and defensive ends who sometimes play two gaps and sometimes get assigned only one — with very little variation beyond bringing in a nickel back (Jeremy Lane or, when he’s been hurt, Byron Maxwell) when teams go to extra wide receivers.
What Wagner loves about these Seahawks is they don’t go into exotic checks and shifts and disguises before snaps as many NFL defenses do. While coordinator Dan Quinn has blitzed linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright plus safety Thomas and the nickel backs more this season, the Seahawks essentially tell an offense: “Here we are. You know what we are in, and we aren’t changing it. Block us if you can.”
“Their team plays the 4-3 defense like we did, and that’s something you don’t see that much anymore,” Mike Wagner said, thinking of old teammates “Mean” Joe Greene and L.C. Greenwood at ends, Ernie Holmes and Dwight White at tackles, and Jack Lambert at middle linebacker flanked by Jack Ham and Andy Russell.
“There wasn’t a whole lot of scheme. There wasn’t a whole lot of blitzing. Teams knew exactly what we were in, but they couldn’t out-execute us. It was Chuck Noll’s whole attitude: If you play the system the way it should be played, with the physical nature and the discipline that just punishes teams, it doesn’t matter what they do, we’ll win.
“That’s what I see when I watch the Seahawks. They are very, very disciplined. And fast.”
That’s no accident.
“One of the things we talk about is freeing ourselves up mentally so we can play fast,” said Quinn, whose work in two seasons with Seattle’s defense has been so exquisite four teams interviewed him last week to potentially become their new head coach. “Sometimes when you have a ton of calls or checks at the line of scrimmage you’re more concerned about that than when you’re playing your fastest at the line of scrimmage.
“So we just try to free the guys up mentally so they can play fast and physical. That’s the style that we love.”
Sapp and Ray Lewis don’t love Bennett’s claim that the Seahawks have the best defense ever. Both retired defensive stars texted Bennett last month to tell him so.
After Seattle throttled the St. Louis Rams, 20-6, in its last game Dec. 28, Bennett texted Sapp back with, “Told you so.”
Lewis was the middle linebacker and soul of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens. That team moved in and out of 4-3 and 3-4 looks. It used a complex array of blitzes, often overloading the center, and disguised coverages and alignments to neutralize offenses. Those Ravens had four shutouts in 2000, the most since those 1976 Steelers. They still hold the record for fewest points (165) and fewest yards rushing (60.6) allowed over a 16-game schedule.
Sapp was the havoc-making defensive lineman for the 2002 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, which surrendered 196 points, the fifth-lowest total in a 16-game season. Those Bucs were similar to the current Seahawks in their 4-3 base alignment. But they used their Tampa 2 defense: Two high safeties in deep zone coverage near the hash marks, cornerbacks in the outside zones nearer the sidelines and a versatile middle linebacker to drop into deep coverage in the center of the field.
Tampa Bay’s middle linebacker in 2002, Shelton Quarles, was a modern Lambert in terms of speed and versatility. Then-Bucs coach Tony Dungy, through 2001, played in the same secondary as Mike Wagner on the 1977 and ’78 Steelers. He brought to Tampa Bay the zone-coverage concepts Pittsburgh’s defensive coordinator in the ’70s, Bud Carson, used with those famed Steelers.
When Jon Gruden replaced Dungy in 2002 the concept stayed.
That 2002 Bucs team was the second one to face at least 500 passing attempts and allow fewer than 2,500 yards. They trounced the Oakland Raiders, 48-21, to win the Super Bowl.
Ditka’s 1985 Bears used their unique “46” defense devised by coordinator Buddy Ryan. It over-shifted its front to the offense’s weakside and stuffed eight defenders near the line of scrimmage. Teams couldn’t run.
Quarterbacks — most of whom were still taking direct snaps from center and dropping back, unlike today’s ubiquitous shotgun, spread formations — got annihilated trying to throw. The Bears led the NFL in ’85 in points allowed (198, 12.4 per game), yards allowed per game (258), interceptions (34) and rushing defense (82.4 – 0.9 yards more than this season’s Seahawks).
THE RING IS THE THING
But let’s cut to the chase of what makes a defense worthy of the “best-ever” title: How many championships did it produce?
Zero for those 1969-71 Vikings. They couldn’t beat the Kansas City Chiefs or the Miami Dolphins or, later at the end of the 1974 season, the Steelers in the Super Bowl.
Ryan left as the Bears’ defensive coordinator to be the head coach of the Eagles in 1986. Yet Chicago followed its lone, ’85 title by starting ’86 10-2. Then quarterback Jim McMahon got hurt. The defense led them to finish 14-2, with veteran backups Steve Fuller and Mike Tomczak managing games as fill-in quarterbacks. But Ditka went with Doug Flutie at quarterback in the playoffs, and Chicago got upset, 14-3, by Washington in the divisional round.
The Bears won just three playoff games in the next 17 seasons.
Today’s NFL is as tough on continuity as it is on defenses. Once teams win the Super Bowl, players want to get paid. The league’s salary cap and free agency broke up those 2000 Ravens and ’02 Buccaneers with only one championship for each of them.
That leaves the 1970s Steelers as the benchmark, for their sustainable excellence.
To that end, Seattle has so far locked up core defensive players Thomas, Sherman, Chancellor, Bennett and Wright to contract extensions. Bobby Wagner is due next; the first-time All-Pro’s rookie contract from 2012 ends after next season.
The Seahawks are two home wins plus a victory Feb. 1 in Glendale, Arizona, away from being halfway to the four Super Bowl rings Mike Wagner has as Pittsburgh’s most celebrated vice president of a bank.
“I think I need to see them do it for a couple more seasons before I would say they are the best ever,” Wagner said of this Seahawks defense.
“But I think they are definitely up in the top tier.”