Who is the Seahawks’ defensive MVP?
Making the case for Michael Bennett, Bobby Wagner, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor as the Seahawks’ most valuable player on defense.
Photo Illustration by The Seattle Times
Earl Thomas, safety
The case: To judge Thomas on stats — one interception, three forced fumbles — is a mistake. Former Seahawk safety Chris Maragos once called Thomas a fire extinguisher at the back of the defense, only that Thomas puts out most fires before they happen. His speed, his feel for offenses and his understanding of the players around him allow him to limit big plays. He not only allows Seattle’s corners to play the pressing style the Seahawks like, but he also frees up strong safety Kam Chancellor to play so close to the line of scrimmage. Coach Pete Carroll said Thomas has never been more consistent.
Michael Bennett, defensive lineman
The case: Bennett is Seattle’s most versatile lineman, and he has played every position along the line this year. He leads the Seahawks with seven sacks, and he has been a disruptive pass rusher even when those pressures haven’t resulted in a sack. He has had his best season against the run, and he is so quick at the line that he often forces running backs to change directions. Bennett has played 200 more snaps than he did last season, and he has shouldered that increased workload without a drop in production.
Richard Sherman, cornerback
The case: Sherman finished the regular season with his fewest passes defended (eight) and his fewest interceptions (four) since his rookie year in 2011. But that’s more a reflection of the respect other teams have shown him than an indictment of his performance. Sherman has effectively lopped off a third of the field — the left side, where he lines up on almost every snap — because teams have largely chosen not to challenge him. In a rarity this season, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick routinely went after Sherman in the first game between the teams this season. Sherman responded by picking off two Kaepernick passes.
Bobby Wagner, linebacker
The case: In his third season, Wagner has been the breakout player on Seattle’s defense. He was named a Pro Bowler and, more prestigiously, a first-team All Pro. Wagner is a tackling machine in the middle of Seattle’s defense, and his speed makes up for other mistakes or weaknesses. As safety Kam Chancellor said, “He makes people right.” Wagner finished tied for 33rd in the NFL with 104 tackles despite missing five games because of an injury. His speed allows him to track down running backs and also match up with the speedy quarterbacks like Cam Newton and Colin Kaepernick that have become more predominant in the league.
Kam Chancellor, safety
The case: There isn’t much subtlety to the way Chancellor plays: He is a bulldozer, a wrecking ball, an enforcer — pick whichever word conjures images of brute physical impact and it will work. Chancellor is a factor near the line in the run game, and he’s able to handle fullbacks or offensive linemen like a linebacker. In the passing game, he eliminates routes over the middle because of his presence and is capable of matching up with tight ends. Chancellor dealt with nagging injuries for the first half of the season, and he wasn’t able to play as fast or as physical as he would have liked. But he has returned to the hard-hitting, fear-inducing safety who the Seahawks lean on to be their enforcer.
Pick: Michael Bennett
Reason: A key question heading into the season was how the Seahawks would replace the depth lost on their defensive line. One answer was giving more snaps to Michael Bennett. Bennett, who plays primarily end but also regularly moves inside to play tackle, was on the field for 85 percent of Seattle’s defensive snaps this season compared to 57 percent last season. His ability to play more this year but at the same high level was critical to Seattle’s defensive success in 2014.
Pick: Kam Chancellor
Reason: While I know there are better overall talents playing more important positions — cornerback Richard Sherman and free safety Earl Thomas, in particular — there’s no denying that Chancellor embodies the Seahawks’ physical style. His bone-crushing hits are akin to Marshawn Lynch’s rugged running style. They are the inspiration of this defense’s overbearing ways. This season, it was striking how dominant the Seahawks were when Chancellor was healthy. His leadership, the discipline he plays with and his impact in both running and passing situations are as vital as the punishment he delivers.
Pick: Richard Sherman
Reason: Not only does Sherman neutralize an entire side of the field on his own, but his brash, aggressive, fearless style of play epitomizes and sets the tone for the entire Seattle defense. Though Sherman’s interceptions were halved from eight to four this season, it’s a good testimony to the fact that opposing quarterbacks for the most part have opted to stay away from Sherman Island.
Pick: Earl Thomas
Reason: Coach Pete Carroll has asked an interesting question the last two years: How many times have the Seahawks been beat deep on post or seam routes — routes down the middle of the field — with Earl Thomas on the field? The answer: not many. Carroll says those big-play routes are how teams most often score, and Thomas eliminates them. The Seahawks led the NFL with the fewest “explosive,” or big, plays allowed this season, and Thomas plays a huge hand in that.
Pick: Bobby Wagner
Wagner picked up 50 percent of the vote in our reader poll, which tallied nearly 3,000 votes, with Thomas coming in second with 26 percent. Chancellor (10 percent), Bennett (8 percent) and Sherman (6 percent) rounded out the field.
Player capsules by Jayson Jenks, The Seattle Times