Seahawks’ Kam Chancellor could be the X-factor

JERSEY CITY, N.J. — On a critical third-down play late in Seattle’s NFC championship game victory, San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree had a chance to make a catch across the middle of the field.

Instead, with Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor closing fast, Crabtree didn’t make much of an effort for what would have been a tough catch, instead ducking at the last second to avoid contact.

To borrow a phrase sometimes used by players, Crabtree made a business decision. As in, it’s bad for the business of being Michael Crabtree to take a shot from Chancellor, even with a Super Bowl berth on the line.

That moment, and so many others like it over the past three seasons — who can forget St. Louis quarterback Kellen Clemens giving a little wave to an oncoming Chancellor as if to say, “please, don’t hit me, I’m about to slide” — explain why Chancellor will be one of the most important players on the field when the Seahawks face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.

So many factors will go into Seattle’s efforts to stop Peyton Manning and the record-setting Denver offense, from the coverage skills of the Seahawks’ cornerbacks to the pass rush to the run defense — yes, the Broncos do run the ball occasionally too — but the X-factor, so to speak, could very well be what Chancellor brings simply with his presence.

When Chancellor is on the field, opposing players know it. Chancellor, one of the hardest hitters in football, brings an intimidation factor that has a real effect on opposing offenses.

As Clemens put it prior to Seattle’s first meeting with the Rams, “Kam Chancellor, I mean have mercy. Do not be standing on the tracks when that train comes down to the tunnel.”

Despite being a gentleman off the field — I mean, the guy surprised his mom with a house last offseason after signing a new contract — Chancellor can’t help but smile when he knows he has put an element of fear in an opponents head.

“It’s a certain look,” he said. “It’s a certain look they give me and I just smile back. Their eyes become big.”

Just as important as Chancellor’s ability to deliver the big hit is his ability to do so within the rules. Plenty of people can hit hard when they leave their feet and lead with their helmets. But few, if any, know how to deliver a powerful blow as well as Chancellor with feet planted while leading with the shoulder. Chancellor did draw four personal foul calls this year, but two were for being late to the pile, a point of emphasis this year, and just one was of the “defenseless receiver” variety that got Chancellor in trouble at times two years ago.

“You just have to adjust,” he said. “I always tell the guys you just have to adjust. The rules are the rules. The rules are made and you just have to adjust your game and still have the same impact.”

A controversial topic in the AFC championship game was a Wes Welker pick play that injured New England cornerback Aqib Talib. Call it a hunch, but I’ll bet Broncos receivers will be a little more hesitant to initiate contact if Chancellor is the man running across the field.

Yet hard hits and intimidation are hardly enough by themselves to make Chancellor the great player that he has become. Chancellor’s size lets him play the run like a linebacker, but he can still cover well enough to deal with some of the game’s best tight ends, which could be a huge factor Sunday against Denver’s Julius Thomas. Chancellor, who earned Pro Bowl and second-team All-Pro honors this year, is hardly an overlooked part of Seattle’s defense, yet sometimes the man who brings the boom to the “Legion of Boom” secondary is left out of the discussion when people talk about the league’s top defensive players.

“Kam’s been the best player on our defense the whole season,” said defensive end Michael Bennett. “I think he’s one of the best players in the NFL. I’m surprised he’s not up for defensive player of the year. The way he tackles, it’s just amazing. He hits better than some linebackers. Some of the linebackers in the NFL are supposed to be the most ferocious hitters, I think Kam is by far the most ferocious hitter in the NFL.”

And while as Bennett notes, Chancellor has come up big all year, he’s been even better of late, leading the Seahawks with 25 tackles in two playoff games. Chancellor also has four passes defensed and came up with a key interception in the fourth quarter of last week’s win over San Francisco.

“Kam is on it,” Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said. “Kam is really on his game, and the time that the guys have spent together has really paid off. He’s really on it, his preparation is really dialed in, he’s getting everything out of every rep in practice and all the meeting times and he’s extremely confident right now. He’s really on it and he just knows that he’s on it. So just to see a guy really, really peaking at a great time, we’re thrilled to have that happen.”

Chancellor, who was a part of Seattle’s first draft class under Carroll and general manager John Schneider, was the first of their players to be signed to a lucrative extension. Part of it was timing, but part of it was also symbolic to Schneider and Carroll, who see in Chancellor, a former fifth-round pick who went from backup and special-teams player to defensive leader and Pro Bowler, the embodiment of what they look for on defense: desire, skill, toughness, and yes, a little bit of intimidation. All traits that on Sunday could make the difference if the Seahawks are able to win their first Super Bowl.

“What Kam puts out on tape from a physical style and the contact and the hits that he delivers, he’s one of the most physical players that we have,” said defensive coordinator Dan Quinn. “That can help our entire team.”

Herald Writer John Boyle: jboyle@heraldnet.com.

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