After games each week, players whose teams just struggled to score points are asked what makes the Seattle Seahawks’ defense such an extraordinary unit.
The answer is always some variation of this: They don’t do anything fancy, they just do it better than anybody else.
As coach Pete Carroll said recently: “… we’re very simple in what we do.”
But this simple scheme is executed with precision and speed and aggressiveness.
As defensive coordinator Dan Quinn likes to say about the goals for his unit’s style of play: “Fast and physical.”
Leading the NFL in scoring defense three straight seasons is the culmination of a lengthy period of honing and revising the scheme Carroll developed with such success at USC.
It prizes speed over size at most positions, with competitive tenacity demanded at every position. Carroll seeks players with unique attributes and puts them in roles that will best exploit them.
Two interior tackles are meant to take up space and disrupt the rushing attack, along with a big, run-stopping end. The “Leo” at the other end is the best on-line pass rusher with the ability to quickly get off the line of scrimmage.
The interior defenders generally get replaced with better rushers on passing downs, and the rotation of the front four, throughout the game, helps keep them all fresh.
Along with good adjustments at halftime, that rotation contributed to a Seahawks’ 2014 defense that allowed an average of 2.7 points in third quarters this season, and a second-half average of fewer than 7 points.
Pursuit speed is critical at the linebacker positions. The strong-side linebacker needs to be a good pass rusher, with the middle and weak-side linebackers playing a more traditional position off the line of scrimmage.
The corners are expected to be long and physical; Richard Sherman and Byron Maxwell, for instance. They can not only cover receivers, but also knock them off their routes early.
Since the Seahawks play a great deal of zone with a single, high free safety, Earl Thomas serves as the last line of defense. He was drafted for his savvy and his sideline-to-sideline play-making ability.
Although his interception total slipped to one this season, he’s done his job as backstop better than ever. Once again the Seahawks led the NFL in fewest “explosive” plays (12-plus yards rushing or 16-plus yards passing).
In 2013, Seattle gave up 30 explosive plays via the rush. This season, that total dropped to 19. It’s due to better team tackling and swarming, but it’s also because Thomas has been so unerring at getting to the ball before the play develops.
The ideal strong safety, then, is versatile and physical enough to be brought toward the line of scrimmage to offer run support against strong rushing teams. Kam Chancellor was made for the job.
It all starts, though, with finding hyper-competitive players, fitting them to a role, and then coaching them to their tasks.
Quinn obviously has earned the players’ trust and confidence. Here’s how.
Against Houston last season, Quinn’s film study led him to note that in a specific situation, Texans quarterback Matt Schaub always dumped the ball to a certain receiver when he was blitzed from his right side.
At a crucial point in a tight game, Quinn called for Chancellor to blitz off the edge. Knowing where Schaub was going to bail with the ball, Sherman jumped the route, picked off the pass and returned it 58 yards for a touchdown.
Afterward, an impressed Sherman said it was as if Quinn had specifically diagrammed the interception.
And after the recent win at Arizona, Thomas said that every play the Cardinals ran, the Hawks had the right key for the play. It was as if they heard the plays being sent in from the sideline.
Having 11 players close in on the ball is another trait that has impressed opposing coaches.
“They do a fantastic job of diagnosing, running, hitting,” former San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said. “But they (also) do a tremendous job of playing team defense — very well-coached, very good at diagnosing.”
In December, Carroll cited not just the team play, but the impact of the leadership. He mentioned Thomas and Chancellor and Sherman and K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner and Michael Bennett.
“All those guys have hung together with us to keep the message moving forward until we really figured it out and felt right,” Carroll said. “That’s what is most apparent for me.”
Yes, it all sounds simple.
But in the NFL, it is so very rare.