The Seahawks' defense took over the #1 spot in scoring defense this past week with their shutout of the New York Giants, now holding opponents to an average of 14.6 points per game. Over Seattle's final two games, both at home - where opponents have averaged 13.0 ppg this season - the Hawks will attempt to close out the year leading the league in what's ultimately the simplest, most basic metric for measuring a good defense - points allowed - for the 2nd straight season.
While Pete Carroll constantly espouses the importance of stopping the run, the core of Seattle's success comes from their pass defense. Successful pass defense is a real team effort - not to spout cliches - but you really need to hit on all cylinders on the defensive line (pass rush, force the quarterback to hurry, change his platform, move, or confuse him), the linebacking corps (underneath, intermediate routes, zone coverage, and/or coverage on backs and tight ends), and secondary (everything deep and on the outside) to be successful consistently, and against good quarterbacks.
Seattle, as Davis Hsu points out, now leads the NFL in interceptions, opponent yards per attempt, opponent yards per completion, opponent quarterback rating, opponent passing yards per game, opponent yards per play, opponent 20+ yard passes (explosive passes), and are tied for lead in forced fumbles.
Chase Stuart wrote a really interesting article for the New York Times this week, and it adds perspective to some of this statistical craziness. In it, he points out:
Seattle ranks No. 1 in passing yards allowed and in interceptions, a feat that has been accomplished only three times in the N.F.L. Two of those teams won championships that season (the 2002 Buccaneers and the 1963 Bears), while the third (the 1982 Dolphins) lost in the Super Bowl.
Stuart goes further into the analysis of Seattle's excellent pass defense by examining where they stack up in ANY/A, or Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt, which is, as he explains, "similar to team passing yards per attempt (including sack yards lost in the numerator and sacks in the denominator), but adds 20 yards for each passing touchdown and subtracts 45 yards for each interception."
The league average Adjusted Net Yards per Attempt this season is 5.97, which would also be an N.F.L. record. (The previous high was 5.93, set last season.)
(In other words, this forward pass thing is catching on.)
The Seahawks have allowed just 3.40 ANY/A, easily the best in the league (San Francisco and Carolina are second and third at 4.62 and 4.73).
While that's seriously impressive, it would be interesting to see how Seattle's pass defense stacks up historically. Obviously, the issue with that is that passing numbers have exploded over the years because of rules that favor the quarterback and offense. So Stuart devised a method in measuring how good this defense is relative to the rest of the league's teams in any given year.
But since the ANY/A league average has been rising for years, we cannot just compare Seattle to teams of yesteryear. We also need to measure how far from the league average each pass defense has performed.
The simplest way to measure deviation from the average is to measure the standard deviation among all pass defenses in the N.F.L. In 2013, the standard deviation of the ANY/A ratings of the 32 teams is 0.93. As a result, Seattle's pass defense is 2.76 standard deviations above the 2013 mean of 5.97. If the Seahawks can maintain that level of dominance, it will rank as the fourth best season since 1970.
Here's where it gets fun.
The second best defense was posted by the 1988 Vikings, who produced an ANY/A rating that was 3.21 standard deviations above the mean. Seattle Coach Pete Carroll is likely to remember that team well, as he was Minnesota's defensive backs coach that season. Only one other pass defense, that of the 1970 Vikings, was farther from the mean than the current Seahawks.
(Maybe this is coincidental or maybe there is something to this, but the 1970 Vikings were coached by Bud Grant, who was Carroll's mentor, and the coach that Carroll has said he most looks to emulate).
The incredible thing about all this is that Seattle has managed to put up these types of defensive numbers despite some hits to their secondary. Starting RCB Brandon Browner has missed six games due to injury, and his backup in Walter Thurmond has missed three games due to suspension. Seattle hasn't really skipped a beat.
Byron Maxwell has stepped in and has picked off three passes in three starts, and looks to be establishing himself there as a starter, not only for the rest of this season, but going forward (Browner is a free agent after this year). Jeremy Lane has stepped into the slot, where he's played exceedingly well, and gives you some hope that he can assume that role next year (Thurmond is a free agent after this year). As we've seen, Seattle's fourth and fifth cornerbacks on the depth chart are legitimately good enough to be starters on this and other teams.
So, how have Carroll and his staff been able to develop such a talented and deep group of cornerbacks in a league where corner is one of the mostly highly valued positions?
It comes down to scouting/acquisition, and player development.
Ask Carroll (from his interview Monday with Brock and Danny):
There's a couple aspects to [how we've managed to build a group of talented corners]. One, we want fast guys, and long guys, that's what we're looking for.
This is obvious. Fast and long. Pete Carroll's 'angular' and big cornerbacks.
Then, they've been indoctrinated into the system.
Indoctrinated. That's ... kind of a really strong word. He didn't say they're 'taught the system', or that 'they're brought into the system'. Indoctrinated.
This is what it really comes down to, in my opinion. Every single corner in the draft is fast. You narrow the group to some of the taller players, but from there, you have to develop those players and mold them into exactly what you want them to be. You have to hone their skills, craft their styles to fit your scheme, and work on it every day. Carroll is a former DB and his area of expertise is defensive back play. I genuinely believe he's the best defensive backs coach in the NFL and that there's no better teacher in this area.
Becoming too convenient of an explanation to keep attributing the success of a team like the #Seahawks to the fact they have a "cheap" QB.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) December 17, 2013
Fact is.. some r better at building programs, evaluating and valuing players correctly, and developing/utilizing players better than others.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) December 17, 2013
It's not a coincidence that Pete Carroll's current defensive backs coach - the guy that he relies on daily to proselytize his brand of play to the Seahawks players - is a former USC player and a former USC coach under Pete Carroll. Kris Richard is highly respected by his players and works in tandem with Passing Game Coordinator Rocky Seto to get Seattle's corners programmed to how they want them to play.
Kris Richard and Rocky Seto have done a fantastic job of training them. They're really, really, strict, and if you guys could appreciate it, they (the corners) all look the same, somewhat.
The way they step, the way they challenge at the line of scrimmage, the way they finish in the things that we teach.
This is a long, long process, to get these guys to where they are. But, now they're in the system, and it doesn't matter who steps in and plays. It's impressive.
So, it's a process, but it's kind of a systems thing for us.
This is something that's resonated with me. As former NFL Scout Louis Riddick points out above, despite what you'd think about NFL-level coaching, there are varying degrees of emphasis put on player development and teaching. It always stands out to me how hands-on all of Seattle's positional coaches are with their players, how specific they are, and how repetitive they are.
When I was in high school, my basketball team underwent a coaching change during between my sophomore and junior years. From junior year on, practices were completely different than they'd been in... well, my whole life.
Instead of scrimmaging constantly, we focused heavily on drills that developed muscle memory. Our coach was very specific about the amount of shots that we were to take each practice - meaning, we were supposed to shoot literally hundreds of times each practice, which is kind of rare, when you consider how few times you're actually shooting when running in scrimmages. He devised drills where we'd get in hundred of attempts from every angle. By the end of each drill, you were supposed to have lead for arms and be completely winded, or in other words, feel the way that you can feel during the fourth quarter of games.
We'd spend at least 30 minutes every practice just doing dribbling drills against man defense - up and down the court, choreographed, but intense. Importantly, Coach made sure everything went at full speed. Practices were truly exhausting, but we ended up becoming an excellent shooting team that rarely turned the ball over because we were all excellent at dribbling. We were in better condition than every team we faced, and when we squeaked into the state tourney as the last possible seed, we upset the number-1 seed in the first game. (Glory days, I know).
In many ways, Pete Carroll reminds me of my high school basketball coach. Practice like you play. Practice becomes just as intense as games, and you can just let your muscle memory take over. If you've been to Seahawks' training camp, you'll know that they 'waste' precious time every day by running silly high-school level drills over and over and over.
With practice times severely limited and rationed both in college and the NFL level, I actually think most teams put teaching down the list of priorities and instead just expect that their players should know what they're doing by the time they get to this level.
Here's a snippet of something I wrote back in August after attending a Seahawks' TC practice. It concerned linebacker and cornerback drilling:
First of all, it always kind of baffles me that the Hawks spend the first 30 or 40 minutes of their practices doing seemingly basic drills. They spend 10-15 minutes stretching, then they do the wholly unimportant but somehow integral 'bag drill', with coaches firing up their players as they run, stepping over speed bump bags. This seems like something you'd see 12-year olds doing before practice but with Pete Carroll's program, it's ostensibly meant as a rite of passage into the practice you're about to undertake. Maybe he does it to stir some nostalgia in his players - take them back to their days of playing Pop Warner, where they played for the love of the game and not glory or a game-check. Maybe Carroll's just a dork. Either way, it gets the players fired up and the crowd fired up as well.
Once the team runs through the bag drill, the positional groups split and work on fundamentals. These drills, in my mind, are meant as 'muscle memory' exercises, and I can appreciate the fact that Carroll's teams spend time with this. The famous Carroll fumble-recovery drills - these engrain the technique of falling on a ball and wrapping your body around it, in the hopes that it becomes instinctual when the 'bullets are flying'. There are many other less obvious drills though, and I tried to pay close attention to those.
The first I noticed took place between John Lotulelei and one of the linebackers' coaches (not Ken Norton). In this drill, Lotu placed his hand on the coach's hip, following him closely whilst mirroring his steps precisely. The coach chopped his feet, then cut left, away from Lotu, fake-running a pass route as a tight end or slot receiver. This was done in slow motion and Lotu chopped his feet in as close to a unison with his coach as possible, and closed on the route behind him.
They then repeated the exercise in full speed, and you could see the technique that was being ingrained in the linebacker - it was a trailing coverage drill, meant to prepare the defender to trail a receiver or tight end, mirroring footsteps (running step for step) - to the point that the receiver or tight end chops their feet to stem their route. The technique was then, for the linebacker, to do the exact same thing, closing over the top and attempting to disrupt the passing lane with an arm or hand. It was pretty interesting to watch.
K.J. Wright mentioned Monday that the Seahawks, under new DC Dan Quinn, will be running a lot more man coverage across the board. It would make sense that the linebackers familiarize themselves with techniques in running man coverages.
"As you can see, we are running a lot of man-to-man coverages, so we are really locking onto guys, making sure we stay tight to them and don't stay back in zones and let them pick us apart," Wright told Bob Condotta. "So [Dan Quinn's] really aggressive with his calls and we are going to be on guys to see who the best defender is.''
The other drill that stood out to me yesterday morning - and there were many, ranging from special teams coverage to corner-safety run fills - was the simple bump-and-run drill for corners. We know that Seattle has one of the best, if not the best, defensive backfields in the NFL (ok, it's obviously the best, who are we kidding). We know that Pete Carroll and John Schneider have said time and again that they draft with the thought in mind that they trust their coaching staff to coach up and develop players. It's partly how they turned fifth-round picks into Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor. They turned a CFL All Star into an NFL Pro Bowler. Techniques. Not asking players to do what they can't do. Fundamentals. Repetition. This drill reinforced that thought in me, because watching each and every Seahawks corner run through it, you could see absolutely pinpoint fundamental technique, footwork, hand placement, and importantly, eye discipline at play.
Simple drill - the receiver runs a route - the corner re-routes the receiver outside with inside leverage and a brisk inside hand shiver, trails, then turns to find the ball only after the receiver looks for it. It was like watching robots execute it, because they all ran it almost exactly the same way. Stare at the receiver's face while running step for step, when the receiver looks back, the corner then turns his head and locates the ball, maintaining contact with the downfield arm and/or their back. We've seen Richard Sherman perfect this in games, and I saw, up close, Sherman display this drill technique later in scrimmage time. Muscle memory. Technique. Fundamentals.
Another big part of the puzzle is that Seattle's defensive backs seem extremely dedicated to tape study and being students of the game. You may have seen this video posted in several other stories but if you haven't watched it yet, it's probably time for you to do so:
Earl Thomas is known to voraciously watch tape as well, and has said that there is a trickle-down effect of preparation that comes from the coaching staff, particularly Richard:
"He takes us through everything, I mean everything, we might encounter on Sundays," Thomas said. "We do a lot of walk-throughs, a lot of board work. He and coach Seto have done a great job of explaining defenses. There's no gray area. Everybody's on the same page and that breeds confidence in the DB room."
"He makes sure we're totally prepared," Sherman said. "A lot of coaches show you film and do all this. But he shows you the things that you need to see specifically and that really helps. I have a high football I.Q. I watch a lot of film. I know tendencies. I know route combinations and things like that, but it definitely helps for guys to learn all those little things, like alerts for alignments and assignments, down and distance."
"Kris Richard is like the glue," said Sherman, "He's the cohesion that keeps everybody together, everybody on their toes. He's always prepared. He does a great job of game-planning and making sure we are completely aware of everything a team likes to do."
At the end of the day, I'm not saying that Seattle's cornerback depth is what it is simply because they have good coaching. Obviously, Carroll and John Schneider have done a great job of finding talent in the Draft (and CFL) and the players themselves have to execute what the coaches are asking them to do. There are a hundred variables. I just think Carroll's focus on the little things - indoctrinating his players into the system he's been running for decades - plays a big part of it.
Repetition, muscle memory, the commonly-referenced-in-Seattle confidence factor, which undoubtedly stems from Carroll's philosophy as a coach - these all play a part in the reason this front office has been able to turn mid-round picks and CFL cast-offs into Pro Bowlers. It's a big reason they're putting together what could end up being a historically good season defensively.
Next time you're watching the game, pay close attention to the techniques Seattle cornerbacks use. Hand placement, footwork; watch their eyes, how they respond to different formations. It's all highly managed, meticulously taught, deliberately schemed technique. As I said above, I really believe that Seattle sets themselves apart because they're elite at taking their core, proprietary concepts - i.e., the way they wants to do things schematically - and applying them to the field through their players, particularly in the defensive secondary.