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