Inside the Seahawks' diverse, disruptive defense
Cornerback Richard Sherman calls the Seahawks defense "a melting pot of sorts" because it's such a diverse concoction. He can't think of too many teams that would be willing to tailor a defense to the varied personnel that the Seahawks have.
"I think it's definitely interesting," Sherman said, smiling. "Most teams wouldn't do it like this. They wouldn't put two 6-3 corners out there, or a 6-3 safety who kind of plays like a linebacker, or a 5-10 safety who's almost like another corner in some ways. We're different, though.
"We have a lot of things that we do well. Everybody has their job. The coaches optimize everybody's biggest strengths."
In today's column, I explored that idea, as well as looking at how defensive coordinator Gus Bradley's coaching methods and chemistry with head coach/defensive guru Pete Carroll make the defense dynamic.
An excerpt from the column:
In Tampa, Bradley learned the intricacies of (Monte) Kiffin's often-emulated variation of the Cover-2 scheme. Carroll had learned under Kiffin as a young coach at Arkansas in 1978, and over the past 34 years, they've become like family. But Carroll has his own defensive philosophies, and with the help of Bradley and the entire Seahawks defensive staff, he has been able to combine a lifetime of concepts with some fresh wrinkles to develop what amounts to a career capstone defensive project.
It's a defense that can be explained, at its most elementary level, as a hybrid scheme that mixes 3-4 concepts in a 4-3 front. But what makes the Seahawks stand out is the coaches' willingness to play off the diverse skills of their players. That flexibility has allowed the Seahawks to identify underrated talent that doesn't fit into a mold, to focus on strengths instead of weaknesses in player evaluations and to create an oversized, yet not lumbering, defensive unit.
I could write five 1,500-word pieces on this defense. During my reporting of the Bradley piece, I spoke with nearly every key member of the unit and had an illuminating 1-on-1 interview with Carroll about the defense.
Here are a few more things I want to share right now:
- Carroll has mentioned before that Bradley has great freedom as his defensive coordinator. Bradley calls the plays. When asked for more insight into how they work together, Carroll said he still pays heavy attention to what Bradley is doing, but he trusts his guy. "I'm hard on my defensive coordinators, but I also understand it's never easy when you have a guy lording over you," Carroll said. "So, I try to do a good job of giving freedom. However, I do lord over them some. It's just checks and balanced and quality-control stuff and challenging them and making sure the discussions are complete and thorough, just adding whatever I can. And then the most important part of that is knowing when to shut up and not to give input. Our coaches coach the details of football better than any group I've been around, and so I need to get out of their way and let them do that. So, it's a dance that we do. I rarely go against them. They've worked too hard. And they understand how we think and the roots of the philosophy and the approach."
- Bradley is amazed at the level of trust that has developed between the defensive coaches and players. It's a key to his style of coaching. Bradley isn't a public screamer. He'll have stern remarks for players in private, but he never shows up any of his guys. In return, he needs them to be mature and committed. "I think there's a lot of trust that's involved," Bradley said. "Within our meeting room, we hold each other accountable. I told them accountable. They hold me accountable. And they'll hold each other accountable. I think that's when you're stronger. You're more powerful as a unit when, all of a sudden, they're policing things."
- Bradley laughed and said the players usually discipline themselves before he can get to them. "You know, you're just saying, 'That's good man. Great job. I'll get mad if you want me to, but you're doing what we asked'' Bradley said. "They're just so hungry and attentive."
- Defensive end Red Bryant has been with Bradley since 2009, dating back to Jim Mora's only season as the Seahawks head coach, and he says, "I've never seen him demean a player or raise his voice at a particular player. It's just a different method. Gus is in the Tony Dungy mold the way he motivates guys. He doesn't curse at you. He has his own style. It's working."
- Said linebacker Leroy Hill of Bradley: "He's not a pushover at all. He knows how to tell us to turn it on if he needs to. I love him. His system fits how I play perfectly.
- Bradley deserves significant credit for establishing rapport with safety Earl Thomas and helping to change him from an overly-aggressive, turnover-seeking high risk/reward safety to one who makes the big plays without overextending and putting the entire defense in a bad position. Bradley nicknamed Thomas "Deuce," a name he had reserved for a future child. Thomas is touched by the significance. "Definitely, I have a great deal of respect for Gus," Thomas said. "He showed me the NFL way, showed me how hard it is to be a pro."
- Thomas is just as excited about this defense as some of you are. "This defense has a certain feel about it," Thomas said. "This is how it's supposed to be. All the pieces are here. The chemistry is great. We're so close off the field, and that makes you want to work harder on the field because you're playing for more than you."
- Carroll's defensive system incorporates both one- and two-gap defensive philosophies. He's borrowing from a lifetime of knowledge for this Seahawks defense, including what he learned from well-regarded coach Bill McPherson in San Francisco while he was the defensive coordinator under George Seifert from 1994-95. Carroll also credited former defensive line coach Dan Quinn's influence. Quinn is a disciple of McPherson's, and before he left to be the Florida defensive coordinator, the Seahawks had made some great improvements in stopping the run. "We mixed the concepts of one-gap football and two-gap football in a very unique way in San Francisco," Carroll said. "And we played great defense. To me, that was the ultimate package, and we've been able to get back to it now. It's taken us three years, really, to get to the point where we can incorporate the ideas. So, we're doing all of the things that we liked there. I thought it was the most comprehensive package of defense that I've been around. I was not able to do that at SC. I was the defensive coordinator and putting the whole thing together at SC, but our guys just couldn't handle it. It was just too much stuff, and it was too much for the coaches. So we did variations of stuff. It worked out great, but in college, we weren't capable of doing all of that. Guys couldn't learn and couldn't teach it the way we needed to. But it made sense to Gus and all of our coaches -- the background and the principles of things -- and then we've melded it together and ended up with a pretty diverse package of defense."
The Seahawks ranked ninth in the NFL in total yards allowed last season. They were seventh in points per game at 19.7. Quarterbacks had only a 74.8 rating against them, which ranked sixth. They were tied for fourth in yards allowed per rushing attempt. With so much youth, the Seahawks should only get better. If they improve their pass rush, they'll be a top-five unit.
They're building something special. And they're doing it with their own flair.