Seahawks special teams set tone against Cowboys

RENTON — Hanging in the hallway that leads to the Seahawks locker room is a board. On the board is Seattle’s schedule, and below each game, 12 goals for the special teams units to accomplish each Sunday.

Meet a goal, and a Seahawks logo appears in the box.

Well this week, for the first time since Brian Schneider took over as Seattle’s special teams coach under head coach Pete Carroll, bringing the 12 goals with him, all 12 boxes have a logo filling them, according to the team’s website (the locker room has not yet been open to the media this week).

That’s just one measure of the impact Seattle’s special teams had in Sunday’s win over Dallas. Another can be seen in the stat called Defense-adjusted value over average (DVOA), which ranks the Seahawks special teams as the second best in the league through two games. DVOA, a stat created by the website footballoutsiders.com, goes way beyond tradition statistics, evaluates every play of every game to determine a team’s strength on offense, defense and special teams.

Or you can simply understand the importance of Seattle’s special teams by realizing that, if not for two big returns in the second half against Arizona, the Seahawks would have never even had a chance at that final drive that fell short of scoring the game-winning touchdown.

And against the Cowboys, the Seahawks wouldn’t have enjoyed a halftime lead if not for two huge special teams plays that put them ahead 10-0 in the first few minutes of the game.

“Special teams jumped on it and got something started in beautiful fashion for us, and then we just started pounding away,” Carroll said.

Other than with a returner makes a big play, there is little glory on special teams. It’s grunt work that often goes unappreciated, but for the Seahawks, there is no mistaking the importance of special teams play. Carroll has long maintained that his blueprint for winning involves running the ball, winning the turnover battle, playing stout defense, and being strong on special teams. That was precisely the formula Seattle used in its win over Dallas, which is why Carroll said it was one of his most satisfying wins in Seattle, and his team’s special teams play had as much to do with his satisfaction as anything the offense and defense accomplished.

Special teams set the tone from the opening kickoff against Dallas, when Michael Robinson knocked the ball loose from Cowboys return man Felix Jones, leading to an Earl Thomas recovery and an eventual field goal. A few minutes later, Malcolm Smith blocked a punt, which Jeron Johnson returned for a touchdown, making it 10-0 despite very little contribution from the offense. Because of those plays, the Seahawks enjoyed a halftime lead even though the defense allowed the Cowboys to drive 95 yards for a touchdown. And Dallas had to drive 95 yards because Jon Ryan had a perfect punt that was downed at the 5-yard line.

“I think that is what boosted us,” said tight end Anthony McCoy. “That’s really what got us going. The special teams came out on fire. The first kickoff, creating turnovers on some real big plays is what I think helped the morale of the team. That really boosted the offense up and we put two great drives together in the second half to help finish out this game.”

What makes the strong play on special teams even more satisfying for the Seahawks is the fact that they have started the year making big plays rather than being victimized by them. The Seahawks were very good on special teams in 2010 — who can forget Leon Washington’s two second-half kick return touchdowns that led Seattle to a win over San Diego. But in 2011, Seattle opened the year by giving up two return touchdowns in the second half against San Francisco, a huge factor in a season-opening loss. The Seahawks’ special teams play got better last year, but was never up to the level it was the season before. Carroll said the biggest factor in last year’s struggles was the lockout, which limited practice time that could be dedicated to special teams, but regardless of the cause, being better on special teams this year bodes very well for the Seahawks moving forward.

“That was the lockout,” Carroll said. “That was a mess. If you remember, there were like six (return) touchdowns the first week last year. That was everybody. That was all the missed time for all those millions of details that go into that, and unfortunately we gave up a football game right off the bat, that was terrible that that happened. But that is long gone, that has nothing to do with everything.”

This year, with a full offseason, and with several key special teams contributors like Robinson and Heath Farwell, the two special teams captains, leading the way, the Seahawks expect to continue a fast start in the often overlooked part of the game.

“We’ve got a good core group of guys,” Robinson said. “A lot of our core guys are experienced, so we’ve been in games, we understand what our coaches want. This offseason we made our special teams a focal point, so that we can rely on special teams to win games.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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