Posted January 24, 2014

The All-22: The four faces of Seattle’s stellar secondary

Seattle Seahawks
(Elaine Thompson/AP)

Richard Sherman and Earl Thomas lead the way in Seattle’s league-best secondary. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

There’s been a lot said about the Seattle Seahawks’ secondary this season, and the discussion seems to be evenly split between the group’s predilection for postgame rants and issues with certain NFL policies as much as it’s been about its tremendous play. And that’s a shame, because this secondary has everything required to face off against Peyton Manning’s offense in what will be a tremendous Super Bowl XLVIII matchup.

Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll has been assembling great defenses for decades, but he’s never had a back four quite like this one. Seattle’s defense ranked first in just about every possible category  traditional and sabermetric, and unlike most defenses, this one starts from the back and works its way up. As a result, the Seahawks had three players — cornerback Richard Sherman, free safety Earl Thomas and strong safety Kam Chancellor — make the 2013 All-Pro team.

“I think it’s a great tribute to those guys and who they are and how they’ve prepared and how hard they’ve worked. I think it does demonstrate that if you play really well with the guys around you that it can help your play. These guys have fed off one another from the years that they’ve been here. The challenges of being the best and to work the hardest and to help each other be at their best, it’s given them a chance to really do something unique. Obviously this doesn’t happen very often. I think it’s a great tribute to [coaches] Dan [Quinn] and Kris Richard and Rocky [Seto]. Those guys have coached them over the years and brought them together, kept them tight and progressing them all the way throughout their career, and then kept them performing at a really high rate for a long time.

“Earl and Kam have both had recognition before in the Pro Bowl and Sherm with the All-Pro thing before. But that kind of recognition is really, individually, the ultimate when they pick the best guys on both sides of the league. So I know that they’re very proud and they’ve worked really hard for it. So we’re proud of them.”

Carroll should be proud of a secondary that is atypical as it is effective. Let’s take a closer look at how it works.

Richard Sherman: The Mad Genius

Let’s also dispense with the talk of Sherman’s alleged “thuggery” — we’ve got more than a week left to beat that story into the ground. What I’d like to discuss is Sherman’s ability to read offensive intentions and use his physical abilities to counter what teams throw at him. In the 2013 regular season, Sherman was targeted 58 times on 549 defensive snaps, which is a league-low 10.56 percent among qualifying cornerbacks. And he still led the NFL with eight interceptions. In two playoff games, he was targeted twice — yes, two times in two games — with no catches against him. But Sherman is also directly responsible for two more interceptions that he wasn’t specifically credited for — Earl Thomas’ pick in Seattle’s 23-0 win over the New York Giants in Week 15, and Malcolm Smith’s game-ender against the San Francisco 49ers that put the Seahawks in the Super Bowl. In each case, Sherman was the instigator in a tip drill that Seattle’s defense practices quite often.

Sherman has said in the past that it’s his intelligence and not his athleticism that has taken him to the top, and he’s not being disingenuous. He has pure track speed in a straight line and he’s extremely technically proficient, but he can be had in zone coverages (which the Seahawks break into when opposing offenses run trips and bunch formations against them), and faster receivers will occasionally torch him. But he makes up for his few liabilities with an inherent understanding of route concepts gleaned from his time as a receiver at Stanford, and his exhaustive tape study habits give him a serious edge when deciphering what an offense is about to do.

Both tip drills came against number-one receivers, with Sherman playing single tight coverage and the second defender cheating over to catch the tip. Against the 49ers, it was Crabtree running a stutter-go to a fade. Sherman played this the way all Seattle cornerbacks are clearly taught — keep with your man through any movement at the line of scrimmage, establish and maintain inside position, and consider that football yours.

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The play against the Giants saw Hakeem Nicks running outside, Sherman staying tight and inside, and Thomas over from the middle with his demon speed (more on that later) to finish it off.

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On Wednesday, I asked Sherman about the similarities between these two plays, and why he and the rest of Seattle’s secondary are able to take practice to play so well.

“Because we practice hard,” he said. “We really practice as hard as we possibly can. We practice like it’s a game, and I really give Pete Carroll a lot of credit for that and also Earl Thomas a lot of credit for the way our defensive backfield practices and our defense in general. He plays at such a high level, and he’ll be so frustrated if you’re not playing at a high level because it’s messing up his look — because he doesn’t know where you’re going to be on gameday. If you’re going to be trailing, and he’s running full speed to save you, then be trailing so he can run full speed to save you. But if in a game you’re leading and he’s running full speed over there and wasting his time, it’s not a good look. We practice so hard that we’ve had those plays in practice, and in a game you don’t treat it any different. We go out there and execute what we’ve done in practice.

“That’s why moments like this, championship moments. NFC Championships, you get lost in them. You get lost in the game and you don’t realize you’re playing in the biggest game of your life, you just know that you’re trying to make plays. You’re trying to make sure they don’t score, you trying to do everything you can to make sure your team wins. If that’s tipping the ball to make sure that somebody has the [chance] to make a play, that’s what you’re doing, but that’s a testament to our practice habits.”

NEXT PAGE: Breaking down Kam Chancellor and the rest of the crew

19 comments
mikesty
mikesty

"But Sherman is also directly responsible for two more interceptions that he wasn’t specifically credited for ... In each case, Sherman was the instigator in a tip drill"


Does anyone know how many of Sherman's 8 interceptions came this way? It's implied that it's zero but it should be specifically stated. I agree, he deserves props on the 2 INTs that he tipped, but it must go both ways.

DanCrawford
DanCrawford

if the seahawks win, does browner get a ring?

wroger
wroger

 They gave it to the buss on us in 05, now they are saying they are gonna give it to manning in 14. Holmgren was right, teams do have to play against the zebra's. Watch for call patterns to develop during the game. 

Gary34
Gary34

Seahawks lost their first Super Bowl because the Steelers had the better game plan and then made the big plays. This time, the outcome will be determined by LUCK because the game will be played in awful weather. I refuse to watch.

The Death Star
The Death Star

I enjoy watching the Seahawks play, their swagger reminds me of the 90's Cowboys. You need some swagger to go along with that great talent to be great defense. I wish them well in the Super Bowl.

JPG
JPG

Actually, the Seahawks have jumped on the mind games part.  Walter Thurmond has already brought up the fact today about Wes Welker and an illegal hit.  Not that Thurmond believes that - but the idea being planted in everyone's head that perhaps that's what the Broncos do and look out for it.

A brilliant mind games move by the Seahawks.

Gs1
Gs1

I have a feeling that when media darling Peyton plays against the Seahawks they'll strt to actually enforce the illegal contact, holding and pass interference on Sherman and crew and they will be toast. Can't get away with cheating with so many people watching. Hell Serman admitted they do it in hopes of playing the percentages and not getting caught.

TombyBomby
TombyBomby

@Gary34I actually feel better knowing one less knothead will be viewing. Sucks to be a '9er fan, presently anyway.


EricTempleton
EricTempleton

@Gary34really luck? Lol so every game in bad weather is determined by only the weather and it's all luck huh....sounds like someone has a pill that's bitter and already swallowed it....give me a break Gary weather can account for things that happen in a game but the weather isn't even known yet it might be the coldest Superbowl ever but there might not be snow or even rain.....besides teams adjust to weather conditions and some don't that isn't luck that's talent and good coaching......don't air out your lame issues on here and blame it on the weather but I'd rather you watch so you can see the Seahawks hold up the Lombardi trophy while it gnaws away at your insides......

nowhereman222
nowhereman222

@JPG Considering people complain that the seahawks pass interfere and hold on every play (and they do) yet its never called, i doubt Thurmond's words will carry weight.  Plus, who likes being told how to do their job?

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@Gs1 your a joke and to hope that the refs cheat for you to win is pathetic the Hawks play by the rules it is legal to have contact as long as you don't redirect them or interfere with their running which they don't so stop sounding like a pathetic whiner fan please 

davidhd
davidhd

@Gs1 Yeah the holding is called when they actually hold, but what they do a lot of is hand checking, which isn't necessarily illegal. They just blanket cover, and incidental contact, like hand checking and nudging is a part of that. The WRs do the same thing, including when Crabtree clearly shoved Sherman on the big tip play last Sunday. Seattle just plays really great man coverage, and that's why they don't get called for PI or holding every play. 

MarcusCroskey
MarcusCroskey

@Gs1 They actually don't do anymore holding than any other team. They are just more physical at the line as allowed within the first 5 yards. Pansies can't handle it and complain. So you can stop with your wishful thinking.

PaulMaggard
PaulMaggard

@nowhereman222 @JPG the only ones that complain about that is the whiners and they complain about everything in every game 

Merv
Merv

@nowhereman222 @JPG Actually they don't.  But how does Roddy White explain why he can't get open.  It 's not that the defender is better than he is, it is that he must of been holding.

nowhereman222
nowhereman222

@davidhd @Gs1 Seattle doesn't play man that often.  Seems like a lot of cover-3, and some hybrid of cover-1/3.  Obviously, they are really good at it, but they rely on beating you with their talent and execution.  Generally the best way to beat Peyton is to make him think, and if Seattle isn't gonna try to fool him, I would tend to think Peyton will have success.  

Mech
Mech

@nowhereman222@davidhd@Gs1No one is going to totally shut out Peyton but he is going to be up against new challenges, a secondary that is great and a pass rush that is stellar. Put those together and he is going to have a tough day maybe only scoring 2 or three times. Pot roast wont make much of a difference in the run game and he wont be affective against a mobile QB. The real question is how many points the Seattle offense can put up against the Denver defense, that will make the difference in the game.