By John Boyle Herald Writer
The enduring image of the Seahawks’ win Sunday in Chicago undoubtedly will be that of super-sized defensive end Red Bryant high-stepping into the end zone.
That third-quarter play was not only a game-changer — as well as a highly entertaining moment, because really, when is a 300-plus-pound man running with a football not a good time? — it was a perfect example of what this Seahawks defense has become in year two under Pete Carroll.
If there was any doubt about Seattle’s defense heading into Sunday’s game, which really, there shouldn’t be at this point, the Seahawks erased it with a thoroughly dominating performance. Late in the second year of a rebuild under Carroll and general manager John Schneider, this defense is full of playmakers, many of whom don’t fit the traditional mold for their positions. And, most important of all, this group is legitimately good, and possibly on its way to being great.
Bryant, who is listed at 323 pounds, looks nothing like a traditional defensive end. He played sparingly at tackle during his first two seasons, and Bryant openly admits that when he was asked to move to end prior to last season, he feared it was the first step toward being cut.
The reason Bryant found the ball in his hands Sunday is because rookie linebacker K.J. Wright, a fourth-round pick who was a mystery to Seahawks fans before the season, was in the face of Bears quarterback Caleb Hanie with a perfectly timed blitz. Hanie panicked, as bad quarterbacks are wont to do, and threw the ball right to Bryant.
Later in the half, a 6-foot-4 cornerback who spent the past four years in the Canadian Football League helped put the game away with his second interception return for a touchdown this season. And by the way, can anyone explain how Brandon Browner never made an NFL roster before this season? His interception in Chicago was his sixth this season, including five in the past four games. Seattle’s other starting cornerback, Richard Sherman, also looks a bit out of place at 6-3, but has enjoyed a tremendous rookie season with three interceptions since taking over a starting role because of injuries. Sherman, a fifth-round pick, came to Seattle having played more college football as a receiver than a cornerback, but where a lot of teams saw an odd fit, Carroll saw a future shutdown corner.
When ESPN’s Monday Night Football crew was on hand for a practice prior to the Seahawks’ win over St. Louis last week, one member of the team, upon seeing Browner and Sherman up close, ran over to announcer Jon Gruden and excitedly said, “Jon, did you see how (bleeping) big those corners are?”
This defense is good in part because of good coaching. It’s easy to forget, amid all his enthusiasm and his former status as Los Angeles media darling, that Carroll is a darned good defensive coach. He earned his coaching stripes as a defensive assistant and later defensive coordinator in the NFL ranks, and his knowledge of defense, as well as the coaching abilities of defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, are showing up on game days.
But what also has the Seahawks much improved on defense is Carroll and Schneider’s willingness to ignore conventional wisdom. Browner, Sherman and second-year safety Kam Chancellor — a complete steal as a fifth-round pick, by the way — aren’t too big to cover players in Carroll’s eyes. No, they’re the perfect physical specimens to play his style of defense, and are complemented, to borrow a word from Carroll, beautifully, by blazing-fast safety Earl Thomas.
“In the NFL, some of the guys I worked with … they impressed upon me early on the importance of using talents of different players,” Carroll said before this season started; before he knew if experiments like Browner would pay off. “They would choose guys no one else even wanted . … To me, it’s a certain wisdom about the game. If you put guys in positions to do things they’re really good at, they’re going to excel quicker, then you can add to their game. It’s just trying to utilize people’s strengths as best as you can.”
This season has been far from perfect for Seattle’s defense, but the Seahawks will live with penalties and occasional miscues if the positives outweigh the negatives, and so far the results are hard to argue with. The Seahawks rank second in the league with 21 interceptions, nine more than they had all last year. They are holding opposing quarterbacks to the fifth-lowest passer rating in the league, and have allowed the fourth-fewest pass plays of 20 or more yards.
And the secondary is hardly the only defensive unit that’s shining. The run defense has been stout all year, in large part because of Bryant, who may not look like a normal end, but has the size and agility to make running the football a daunting task for opponents. The linebacking unit returns only one starter from last year, and David Hawthorne is playing a different position, but the emergence of Wright has made fans forget about Aaron Curry, and Leroy Hill is playing his best football in years. Across the board, a defense that returned just five starters is younger, bigger, faster and better than it was a year ago.
“Everybody is making plays,” said Thomas, who recovered a fumble and had an interception Sunday. “It’s not just the DBs, it’s the whole defense. We’re just getting our hands on the ball a lot right now.”
Like the entire team, this defense has gotten significantly better in the second half of the season. With so many new faces, and a potential leadership void because of the departures of veterans Lofa Tatupu and Lawyer Milloy, the young defense took some time to come together. New leaders have emerged, including Hawthorne, Thomas, Chancellor and defensive end Chris Clemons, and what started the year as a group with a bright future has turned into a group that is very good in the present.
“At first we didn’t really know how to fit each other out there, but it comes with experience and being on the field together a lot,” Thomas said. “That has a lot to do with how we’re playing in the second half.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org. For more Seahawks coverage, check out his Seahawks blog at heraldnet.com/seahawksblog.