Seattle Game Plan
Before the conference call concluded and after Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson reaffirmed his reputation as arguably the politest star in the NFL by extending warm regards to those who just peppered him with a wide range of queries, Wilson closed his mandatory media session with his customary "Go Hawks!" and validated his standing as the face of the franchise.
To take umbrage with Wilson possessing such a commanding platform in only his second year out of Wisconsin is to stand in opposition of general common sense and savvy brand propagation. Wilson is bright, affable, poised and senatorial, the perfect embodiment of an organization reputed more for rapturous fan support than unscrupulous commitment to success.
The Seahawks owner, billionaire Paul Allen, appears genteel when juxtaposed against the roiling intrusiveness of Jerry Jones, Daniel Snyder and the late Al Davis. Their head coach, Pete Carroll, is perpetually good-natured and serves as a stark contrast to the monotone and disinclined Bill Belichick, whose prickly personality is straight from central casting for stewards of professional football teams.
Sherman might rant and rave, but the Seahawks follow the lead of their reserved and respected young leader.
Peering in from the outside, Wilson is the straw that stirs the Seahawks. But in truth the Seahawks are defined by their fleet and ferocious defense, a unit that is largely anonymous save for notoriously chatty cornerback Richard Sherman. Their defense was prolific last season in helping bolster an offense led by a rookie and, with ears throughout the league tuned in to the deafening noise emanating from the northwest, the Seahawks' defense is the talk of all of football as Seattle (3-0) prepares to face the Houston Texans (2-1) on Sunday afternoon at Reliant Stadium.
Mr. Wilson, the floor is yours.
"Obviously, our defense is one of the top defenses in the National Football League," Wilson said. "For me to be able to go against them every day is a challenge and helps me get better, helps me improve. Obviously, we have some of the top corners and defensive backs in terms of safeties in the league. It's pretty impressive just to watch them.
"They bring so much energy every day and it helps our offense improve. It gives us a challenge on a daily basis and it helps us get better for sure, especially me."
En route to finishing a half-game behind the San Francisco 49ers in the chase for the 2012 NFC West title, the Seahawks led the league in points allowed (245) and defensive rating (7.7) (courtesy Pro-Football-Reference.com) while finishing a franchise-best fourth in total defense (306.2 yards per game). They defeated the Redskins in Washington in the wild card round of the playoffs and rallied to a late lead in Atlanta against the Falcons before succumbing in the final seconds during the divisional round.
This season Seattle is eyeing a division crown and homefield advantage throughout the postseason, a powerful chip considering Wilson has yet to taste defeat at CenturyLink Field. The Seahawks thumped the reigning NFC champion 49ers there 29-3 two weeks ago not because Wilson and the offense were especially dynamic, but because their defense remains exceptional while continuing to display signs of improbable improvement.
The Seahawks pace the NFL in total defense (241.7 yards per game) and scoring defense (9.0 points per game). Their pass defense ranks first in average yards allowed (146.7) and in touchdown-to-interception differential (minus-4). They are tied for third with five interceptions, half of their 10 total takeaways which is tied for second in the league. True to his coaching ideology, Carroll is 20-3 when the Seahawks win the turnover battle and, appropriately, Seattle is plus-6 this season and has finished with a plus turnover margin in all three games thus far.
"I'd like to think that is the number one thing we emphasize in our program," Carroll said. "It's the first thing that we talk about every year every camp, about getting the football and taking care of it. I'm trying to emphasize it better than every coach that's ever coached.
In truth the Seahawks are defined by their fleet and ferocious defense, a unit that is largely anonymous save for notoriously chatty cornerback Richard Sherman.
"For years at SC (Southern California), when we had the big run, our numbers were phenomenal year after year after year in getting the football. It's a winning formula in itself. We do it because it's the single most important factor to winning for us. Our numbers have kind of proven that out."
And while the defensive front, bolstered last weekend by the return of end Chris Clemons from offseason knee surgery, is laden with respected veterans, it is the youth of the back seven that is noteworthy. Middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is 23 years old, leads Seattle in tackles with 24, and is flanked by 24-year-olds Malcolm Smith to his left and KJ Wright to his right. Second-year rush end Bruce Irvin, set to finish a four-game suspension for violating the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, led all rookies with eight sacks in 2012. He is just 25.
The secondary is not only the class of the defense, it's the benchmark unit of the league. Three members are plus-sized: Sherman (6-foot-3, 195 pounds), cornerback Brandon Browner (6-4, 221) and strong safety Kam Chancellor (6-3, 232). Free safety Earl Thomas is relatively diminutive at 5-10, 202, but he has drawn comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers five-time All-Pro strong safety Troy Polamalu. Thomas earned All-Pro honors for a second consecutive season in 2012 and is cultivating a reputation as the top safety in the league. He has that distinction at just 24 years old.
If Thomas is Polamalu, Chancellor is Kenny Easley, the 1981 AFC Defensive Rookie of the Year and 1984 NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Chancellor, 25, earned a Pro Bowl nod in 2011 and appears to be a worthy heir to the revered Easley, a five-time Pro Bowl selection whose name and number are enshrined in the Seahawks' Ring of Honor. Sherman, 25, talks a wondrous game but he backs it up, too, as evidenced by his All-Pro selection after allowing a 41.1 quarterback rating on throws into his coverage (courtesy Pro Football Focus) last season, and his primetime Week 2 shackling of 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin immediately after Boldin dismantled the Green Bay Packers' secondary for 13 catches and 208 yards plus a touchdown.
Browner, at 29, is the graybeard of the unit, but the 2011 Pro Bowl selection has nine interceptions in 29 starts and certainly qualifies as the most dependable weak link in any NFL secondary.
That the Seahawks have amassed such impressive talent in one secondary isn't surprising. Carroll, after all, cut his teeth as a secondary coach and is renowned for his work with defensive backs. But it is commendable that Seattle has ascended to league dominance with such haste, particularly given the relative youth of the defensive backs leading its charge to supremacy.
"I think I'm probably most impressed with the camaraderie that they have," Carroll said. "They work together throughout the year to be connected and to play with a really similar mindset. I think that's really allowed us to bring these guys together in a quick fashion. It kind of showed itself real early that we were going to be talented. You could tell that. It was just a matter of would they come together in a special fashion, and they have.
"There's four leaders there. You can't say any one guy. They kind of take turns, from Earl and Kam and the corners. They all have something to bring to the table and it's really worked out well."
The entire NFL, and those compensated to report on its happenings, have taken notice. Seattle leading the league in Defense-adjusted Value Over Average isn't startling; The Seahawks (-39.6%) sitting 24.5% ahead of the second place New York Jets (-29.9%) is a testament to how smothering the Seahawks have played defensively. The corresponding playoff odds based on DVOA have the Seahawks perching pretty, with Seattle owning 70.4% odds of appearing in the NFC title game, 49.0% odds of earning a Super Bowl XLVIII berth, and 28.7% odds of hoisting their first Lombardi trophy.
The explosive offense Seattle aimed to field by adding Harvin has yet to materialize.
The Seahawks top the league in all three odds-based predictions, as significant and genuine of a deferential hat tip as anyone could desire in the northwest.
But with universal acknowledgement comes increasing responsibility to hold up against scrutiny. On offense the Seahawks are hamstrung by the losses of Pro Bowl left tackle Russell Okung (torn tendon, left toe) and receiver Percy Harvin (hip), a ballyhooed offseason acquisition from the Minnesota Vikings. Wilson remains efficient, ranking third in the league in passer rating (109.6) and tied for second with 9.1 yards per pass attempt, but the explosive offense the Seahawks aimed to field to complement their defense by adding Harvin has yet to materialize.
Yet expectations continue to mount unabated, and the Seahawks seem just fine with that reality. Sherman might rant and rave in a demonstratively entertaining fashion, but the Seahawks follow the lead of their reserved and respected young leader. They harbor no reservations over the greatness others expect of them because they hold themselves to even more exacting standards. The steps made into the spotlight and toward prominence are the first in a long journey the Seahawks plan to complete at MetLife Stadium on the first Sunday in February of 2014.
"Well, we don't shy away from the challenge," Wilson said. "I believe that we have such great competitors in our locker room and that our coaching staff believes in us. We believe in them.
"The way they prepare us, like I always say to the guys, 'The separation is the preparation.' And we have to prepare the right way. Every week we go into it, it's a championship mentality."