RENTON — Sunday’s season-opening win in Carolina showed a lot of things about the Seattle Seahawks, but perhaps the most significant takeaway from that 12-7 victory was this.
As good as Seattle’s offense might be this year, as impressive as Russell Wilson has been, as dangerous as Percy Harvin will be whenever he returns, the Seahawks are still a team that will win in large part because they have one of the best defenses in the NFL.
Holding any team to seven points is a significant accomplishment in the NFL. Doing it to a team playing at home, one that is led by one of the league’s most explosive quarterbacks in Cam Newton, and doing it minus their top three pass rushers? Well that’s just another sign of how impressive a defense the Seahawks have built (in case allowing the fewest points in the NFL last year wasn’t evidence enough for you).
“That’s a good football game,” head coach Pete Carroll said. “It was a really good football game when you really look at it. It’s hard to hold someone to seven points in the NFL.”
And while that fumble forced by Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman was the signature moment for the Seahawks in Sunday’s victory, the most telling number might be 1. As in one Panthers play that went for 20 or more yards all afternoon, a 27-yard pass from Cam Newton to tight end Greg Olsen.
If Carroll’s No. 1 goal in coaching is to win the turnover battle — “It’s all about the ball” is one of his favorite mantras — then preventing big plays might be a close second.
“It’s just such a poor way of doing defense when you are giving up big plays,” said Carroll, whose team is preparing this week for another explosive offense in the form of the Colin Kaepernick-led San Francisco 49ers. “So it’s just as big of a focus as anything that we stress, and our guys have really bought into it.”
Even a struggling offense can get in the end zone against a defense that is susceptible to the occasional big play, as was evident in Seattle’s only touchdown, a 43-yard strike to Jermaine Kearse. But as Carroll well knows, it’s much harder to put points on the board against a defense that will never let you move the ball down the field in big chunks.
Last season, the Seahawks allowed 20 pass plays of 20 or more yards, which ranked sixth in the league, and just five of 40 or more yards (tied 4th). In the running game, the Seahawks were middle of the road in allowing 10 runs of 20 or more yards, but they gave up just one run of 40 or more. In other words, Sunday’s performance was hardly a coincidence. This is how Carroll wants a defense to play. Be aggressive, yes, and try like crazy to take the ball away, but make sure you don’t get torched over the top.
That’s why in his final years at USC, Carroll often had one of his best players, safety Taylor Mays, starting plays 20 or 30 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and it’s why Earl Thomas is so often lined up deep behind the rest of the secondary, an insurance policy in case the rest of Seattle’s talented defense has a breakdown. Often times, Thomas’ value isn’t in making a play as much as it is in keeping an offense from even trying anything down the field.
“Earl does a fantastic job,” Carroll said. “So many times, Earl gets the job done when the ball doesn’t come his way because he just stops the big plays down the middle. And then our corners are really good at it; they’ve done a great job at buying in. It’s really a focus and a discipline in the commitment that these guys have to do it play after play after play, game after game.”
As Carroll notes, talented cornerbacks also go a long ways toward preventing the big play. Though Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman may not have the speed of some of the league’s top receivers, they have the size, strength and technique to keep those players from getting a free release down the sideline. And again, on the rare occasions those corners get beat, Thomas and safety Kam Chancellor are pretty good at cleaning up messes.
“There’s a tremendous focus on that,” Carroll said of stopping the big play. “There’s a real commitment, from the staff to the players, and the players have bought in. The guys are really good about that.”
Yet preventing the big play shouldn’t be confused for playing conservative. The Seahawks aren’t the most blitz-happy team, but they’ll dial up pressure when the situation merits it, and it’s telling that the longest run play they gave up, a 16-yard carry by DeAngelo Williams, ended with Sherman and Thomas separating Williams from the football. No, the Seahawks won’t sellout to make a big play, but few teams rally to the ball and take it away better, as was evident in their 31 takeaways last season, which was tied for fifth most in the league.
It was an impressive opening effort for the Seahawks’ defense, but not one that will leave them satisfied as they prepare for the 49ers this week.
“There are a lot of areas to improve,” Carroll said. Pressure wise, and there were some runs that got out that we didn’t think should. And we missed a couple of reads and things like that, so there’s a lot of room for improvements, but it’s still a good game at 240 yards and a touchdown. We felt pretty good about that overall.”
Herald Writer John Boyle: firstname.lastname@example.org