Seahawks’ defense took center stage in New York

RENTON — It tough for a defense to improve upon giving up the fewest points in the NFL, yet that’s exactly what the Seattle Seahawks are doing this season.

By any measure — including scoring, the most important one — the Seahawks defense was one of the best in the NFL in 2012. Yet Sunday’s shutout victory over the New York Giants, which featured about as complete of a performance as a defense can have, showed why Seattle’s 2013 defense is even better.

After 14 games, the Seahawks are giving up the fewest points (14.6 points per game) and yards (279.5 ypg) of any team in the league, and with 33 takeaways, they have forced more turnovers than everyone but Kansas City. A year ago, the Seahawks gave up 15.3 points per game, which ranked first, were fourth in the league in total defense, allowing 306.2 yards per game, and forced 31 turnovers. Even the run defense, the closest thing Seattle has to a weakness on that side of the ball, ranks 10th in the NFL after holding the Giants to 25 rushing yards. Despite playing aggressive enough to take the ball away at a high rate, the Seahawks also manage to limit big plays, giving up the fewest passes of 20 or more yards in the NFL (27) and fourth-fewest run plays of that length (5).

Considering that Seattle’s final two games are at home, the final numbers figure to end up even more impressive than they are currently.

As much as quarterback Russell Wilson has become the face of the Seahawks, and as explosive as Seattle’s offense can be, Sunday’s 23-0 win over New York was a good reminder that the Seahawks are the NFL’s best team largely because they have the NFL’s best defense. The Seahawks pressured Eli Manning all day, sacking him four times, and intercepted the Giants quarterback five times. Seattle held the Giants to just 181 yards, 100 of which came in the fourth quarter, and didn’t let New York’s offense past midfield until late in the fourth quarter.

“It was obviously a big day for the defense and they just played really, really well,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “There was just no phase of any aspect of what we were doing that wasn’t on it. The pressure was great, the run defense was there, the coverage was excellent, and the playmaking was there too.”

Sunday’s game also highlighted two elements of Seattle’s defense that are keys to its success. For starters, the pass rush continued to show it is one of the most improved elements of the Seahawks game, which is hardly a surprise given that Carroll singled that as a top offseason priority.

The Seahawks signed defensive end Cliff Avril and defensive lineman Michael Bennett in free agency, and both have made a significant difference, combining for 15.5 sacks. Also on display Sunday was the depth that has allowed Seattle’s defense to excel despite several notable absences.

Most notably, the Seahawks were without cornerbacks Walter Thurmond, who is serving a four-game suspension, and Brandon Browner, who has a groin injury. Byron Maxwell and Jeremy Lane, Seattle’s fourth and fifth options at the position to start the season, both played exceptionally well, with Maxwell contributing a pair of interceptions.

“The coverage was really, really tight yesterday,” Carroll said. “All the guys contributed, the linebackers and everyone contributed.”

The Seahawks were also without starting linebacker K.J. Wright, yet that was hardly noticeable thanks to the play of Malcolm Smith. And starting defensive tackle Tony McDaniel barely played due to illness, yet the Seahawks line didn’t skip a beat because of the work put in by Clinton McDonald and rookie Jordan Hill.

The depth, the improved pass rush, the secondary full of playmakers, the improved play against the run, it all adds up to a defensive performance in 2013 that is outpacing an impressive 2012 season. Simply matching what last year’s defense did would have been impressive, and probably enough for the Seahawks to win a ton of games. Yet this year’s defense, 14 games into the season, is taking its play to another level.

“I think to come back and play real well again, that’s better, because most teams do it, and then they don’t,” Carroll said, “So to come back a couple of years in a row and to keep the points down like we have and play such consistent defense and get the football and all that, that’s really good that we’re able to do that, and we did that transitioning to a new coordinator as well. Dan (Quinn) has done a fantastic job.

“The way that we’ve adjusted our style in some regards, but the fundamental aspects of it, playing the deep ball real well, playing the running game real well and getting after the football has been there again. And I think that we’ve improved our pass rush this season too, so we’ve gotten better. Statistically, we were pretty sharp last year too, so we’re in pretty good shape there.”

Injury update

The Seahawks came out of Sunday’s game healthy, Carroll said. The only two players he mentioned after the game as having issues were cornerback Jeremy Lane (stinger), and safety Earl Thomas (thigh bruise), but Carroll said Monday that both players were fine.

On cornerback Brandon Browner and receiver Percy Harvin, it’s more wait-and-see on both players. Carroll said they’ll know more when they determine if either can practice Wednesday.

Wright who had surgery to repair a fractured foot last week, could be running in four to five weeks, which keeps alive the hopes of getting him back in the postseason, Carroll said.

Herald Writer John Boyle:

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