Seattle Seahawks

Rebounding Seahawks defense thinks its swagger is back: “We are who we think we are”

Right after they lost to Carolina last month, defensive end Michael Bennett and quarterback Russell Wilson became leaders. They gathered the Seahawks for an impromptu postgame message.

It was to believe. In each other. In this season that was spiraling at 2-4 but still had 10 games remaining. In the goal to win a third consecutive NFC West title.

Now, after two wins — over really bad teams — that came almost in spite of Wilson’s side of the ball, does Seattle’s burdened defense still believe — in its offense?

“We have faith in them,” All-Pro linebacker Bobby Wagner said. “We have too many weapons on that offense to lose faith in them.”

The unit that has struggled to wins such as 13-12 last weekend at Dallas and 13-10 over the 1-7 Detroit Lions last month sure has faith in its defense.

Then again, what’s not to believe in?

Kam Chancellor’s return, after a two-month holdout stretched through losses in the first two games, plus Wagner’s return from a pectoral-muscle injury has the NFL’s top defense in the last two seasons whole again.

The result: After weeks of blowing leads late in games, Seattle has risen to second in the NFL and tops in the NFC in yards allowed (284.9 per game), third in the league in points allowed (17.8), second in the league in yards passing allowed (186.4), and tops in the NFL in first downs allowed (16.6).

Lately, it’s been back to thudding business as usual for the Seahawks’ star-filled defense.

“(We are) doing things in a fashion that really shows that we’re different than we were early in the year,” coach Pete Carroll said.

“(We are) starting to play more in the style that we’re accustomed to.”

The Seahawks haven’t allowed a touchdown in eight quarters, since All-Pro defensive backs Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas got crossed up on which coverage they were supposed to be in while Carolina threw for the winning touchdown in the final minute on Oct. 18.

Sure, the last two blankings have been against now-benched Colin Kaepernick of miserable San Francisco and Plan-C quarterback Matt Cassel, who seemed averse to throwing anything beyond 8 yards on Nov. 1 at Dallas.

But compared with what happened at the end of games at St. Louis in the opener (a blown late lead), at Cincinnati (when Seattle blew a 17-point lead and lost in overtime) and against Carolina (up by nine points with four minutes left and still a loss), the last two games have been revolutionary for the defense.

Until the 20-3 win at San Francisco and the victory at Dallas, the Seahawks had blown fourth-quarter leads in all four of their losses this season, plus six times in their last eight games dating to January’s NFC Championship Game.

“That was the biggest thing for us, was to finish. We’ve done a great job of finishing the last two weeks,” outside linebacker Bruce Irvin said following the win over the Cowboys.

“No matter what the offense has done, we’ve just focused on what we control. That’s assignment defense. And finishing.

“We’ve got a .500 record now,” said Irvin, who is second on the team with 4 1/2 sacks in a contract-ending year. “We’ve got to come back and finish the season like we know we can.”

Does the Seahawks defense feel it is now, after early season malfunctioning, finally hitting its stride?

“I never felt we were out of stride,” said Sherman, who has shadowed top receivers into disappearing during games. “Sometimes the ball doesn’t bounce your way. Sometimes there’s a tip or a great play, and you have to give the other guys all the credit in the world. And at times we were able to make the plays.

“We are playing great, disciplined defense. That’s what we’ve been able to do.”

It’s only gotten that way recently.

Poor tackling — after a training camp with none of it and a preseason with very little — was the main fault of the Seahawks defense in the opening loss at St. Louis. Then the guys weren’t in the right places in coverages in the defeats at Green Bay and Cincinnati and at home to Carolina.

It took Chancellor, miraculously poking the ball from the crook of Detroit wide receiver Calvin Johnson for a lost fumble inches before Johnson was going to score a late, go-ahead touchdown in Seattle, to keep the Seahawks from losing to the Lions.

Seattle’s famed “Legion of Boom” has just three interceptions in eight games. That’s tied with Jacksonville, Baltimore, Washington and Dallas for fewest in the league. Sherman, the NFL’s interception leader since 2011 with 24 entering this season, has zero.

“It’s not like they are getting a ton of yards. It’s not like we are giving up a ton of yards and a ton of points,” Sherman said. “If we were giving up a ton of yards and a ton of points –— on top of not getting turnovers — there’d be a sense of concern.

“We are doing our job.”

Sherman has been doing his, which during this season — for the first time on a regular basis — has been shadowing the opponent’s top receiver. He played inside as nickel back for the first time in his career in Week 2 and limited Green Bay’s Randall Cobb. After Cincinnati’s A.J. Green torched opposite starting cornerback Cary Williams in the first quarter last month, Sherman took on Green and shut him down over the final three quarters and overtime. Sherman held San Francisco’s lone speedy deep threat, Torrey Smith, to zero catches and one target two weeks ago. Most recently, Sherman took Cowboys star Dez Bryant out of the game, leaving him with two meaningless catches for 12 yards on six targets.

Sherman gets all the attention and Bennett has been getting all the sacks (6 1/2, second in the NFC). But fellow end Cliff Avril has been the most consistently brilliant defender this season. Playing his first full season since Seattle gave him a $28.5 million, four-year contract extension, Avril has been living in opposing backfields. He’s ruined multiple short-yardage runs per game by beating one and sometimes two blockers. He’s also pressured and forced bad throws by quarterbacks, who he’s often then pummeled.

Linebacker K.J. Wright has had perhaps his finest half-season. The four open-field tackles he made immediately after short pass completions, to end four drives in Dallas last week, were indicative of how sure he’s been all season.

Now, if these guys could just be as sure of their offense. Or, maybe they will have to continue carrying the entire franchise’s hopes for winning a third consecutive NFC West title.

“If I can just make it simple: We are who we think we are, in a lot of ways,” the always-confident Thomas said of his defense, which thinks its swagger is back. “We go out there. We play.

“It might not work every time, because this game, you can’t trust it. It’s kind of like gambling. Sometimes it’s ugly. Sometimes it good.

“Lately, it’s been good.”

TOP DEFENSIVE PERFORMERS OF SEASON’S FIRST HALF

DE Cliff Avril: Fellow end Michael Bennett gets the attention. But the quiet Avril is the team’s first-half MVP. He’s lived in opposing backfields, ruined game plans, been mostly unblockable.

LB K.J. Wright: All those underneath passes and screens that teams throw against Seattle on third downs would be first downs if this guy wasn’t making the surest tackles on the field.

DE Michael Bennett: The flip side of all those offside and late-hit fouls: His speed off the snap and desire to clock guys has him second in the NFC in sacks.

NOT-SO-HOT DEFENSIVE PERFORMERS

CB Cary Williams: Part of the reason that Seattle has Richard Sherman shadowing top receivers is to prevent a repeat of having an opponent torch Williams, which is what A.J. Green did in Cincinnati last month.

LB Kevin Pierre-Louis: Coaches keep raving about his speed. Pete Carroll was touting him to potentially share first-team reps this season. But the fourth-round pick in 2014 keeps getting hurt and barely gets on the field.

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