Tough Test vs. Talented Seahawks Defense
by Mike Conklin
September 20, 2012
There has been a great deal of discussion among fans and the media about the sluggish start for the Packers offense. For their part, they don't seem quite as concerned inside the walls of 1265 Lombardi Avenue.
"We’re closer than you think," Mike McCarthy said earlier this week. "We’re not as far away as people might think we are."
The Packers believe they will get on track. They think that they just need to stay the course.
"We have to stay true to our process," McCarthy continued. "Our approach is not going to change. We’re an offensive system that’s built around making the quarterback successful. We’ll continue to do that."
The offense has finished in the top ten in the NFL every season during McCarthy's tenure, and there is no real reason to think that will not continue as long as Aaron Rodgers is at the helm. Even so, the fact that they are not firing on all cylinders yet is a cause for concern for folks outside of Lambeau.
By the time the dust settles at the end of the season, the Packers may very well boast one of the league's best offenses. But there is a good chance it may not get on track yet this week.
Throughout their history, the Seahawks have often been an afterthought amongst NFL franchises. Perhaps it is because they play in the Great Northwest, nearly 700 miles away from their nearest NFL neighbor. Maybe it is because they do not have as storied of a history as other teams, having only been established in 1976. Or it could be that they don't have a championship pedigree; they made it to the Super Bowl under Mike Holmgren but came up short. The biggest name in team history is probably Steve Largent, although many probably remember Brian Bosworth for all the wrong reasons.
It is easy for a team like the Seahawks to go unnoticed, especially in a year when their division foe in San Francisco is playing like it may be the best team in the NFL. One thing that should command more attention than it does, however, is the Seahawks defense.
Because Pete Carroll is widely remembered as head coach of the explosive USC Trojans, it is easy to forget that he originally rose to prominence as a defensive coordinator in the NFL. Defense has long been his forte, and he has been putting his stamp on the Seahawks franchise. Since he joined the team, 18 of their 28 draft picks have been spent on the defensive side of the ball. Carroll first cut his teeth as a coach working with defensive backs, so it may not be a coincidence that the Seahawks sent three members of their secondary to the Pro Bowl last season, all of whom were acquired on his watch (Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor, Brandon Browner).
Last season the Seahawks finished as a top ten defense under the tutelage of Carroll and Gus Bradley, their innovative and ebullient defensive coordinator. Bradley was first hired for the position when Jim Mora was head coach of the Seahawks. He was recommended highly by one of the preeminent defensive coordinators of all time, Monte Kiffin. Bradley had worked under Kiffin as linebackers coach at Tampa Bay. Jim Mora recalled how he ended up bringing Bradley in for an interview.
"Monte says, 'J.L., listen to me. (Mora often went by his initials J.L. to distinguish himself from his father.) I have got a guy here in Tampa that is one of, if not, the finest football coaches I have ever worked with. He's an A-plus. He's a once-in-a-lifetime coach. You need to talk to him,'" Mora recalled.
"He said, 'J.L., this guy is special. You have to bring him in. You have to talk to him.'"
Mora ended up bringing Bradley to Seattle for an interview that continued for 15 hours, and subsequently hired him. When Mora was fired a year later the odds were against Bradley sticking around, as new head coaches usually clean house. Upon meeting Bradley, however, Pete Carroll came away just as impressed as Jim Mora had been a year earlier. Both of them share common characteristics; they played football at small colleges, then started out as graduate assistants and moved up the ladder in the coaching world. They both bring high energy and a positive outlook to the workplace, and enjoy bringing out the best in everyone around them. And probably most of all, they both have unbridled enthusiasm for what they do. During training camp, the eternally upbeat Bradley was asked by a reporter if he ever had a bad day.
"When you're coaching football and you enjoy it this much, it's tough to have a bad day," Bradley said with a smile. "I know it sounds overboard and positive, but it really is. It's hard to be down out here."
That philosophy fits like a glove with Pete Carroll, whose youthful enthusiasm defies his age of 61. Carroll has an unorthodox style and likes to keep things fresh, as evidenced by some of the famous pranks he played on his team while at USC. (During a Halloween practice, he once staged an argument with running back LenDale White which resulted in White storming off and quitting the team, only to fake a falling death from a nearby building a few minutes later.) Like Carroll, Bradley is able to relate with his players well and is known for embedding the concepts he is trying to share into stories that resonate with the team.
"He's the best teacher I've ever been around," Carroll said of Bradley. "He's so thorough, so thoughtful, and he'll go to such lengths to find ways to make sense of the information so the guys can understand it in practical ways.
"It doesn't matter how good we teach. It's how well they learn. I think that connection is really clear with Gus. He's great at it."
It worked well enough last year to take a hodge-podge group of players and mold them into a top ten defense. The Seahawks finished among the league's best in both yards allowed and scoring defense, despite having several players who were learning on the fly.
In many ways, it is hard to define their defensive approach. They have an unusual mixture of athletes on the team. Both starting cornerbacks, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner, stand 6'3" tall. One of their defensive ends (Red Bryant) weighs in at 325 pounds, while their other (Chris Clemons) is 250. In their 4-3 front, their left defensive tackle, Alan Branch, is 6'6", while their right defensive tackle, Brandon Mebane, is barely 6'1" and has relatively short arms.
"We're a melting pot of sorts," said Richard Sherman. He was a fifth round pick out of Stanford a year ago, where he played both wide receiver and cornerback in college. His bookend corner, Brandon Browner, played for five years in the Canadian Football League before Carroll and general manager John Schneider brought him to Seattle last year. He started immediately in his first year, and notched six interceptions en route to a Pro Bowl berth.
The Seahawks style of defense has been described as a hybrid scheme that plays many 3-4 concepts despite playing a 4-3 front. Carroll and Bradley are like mad scientists, taking a strange mix of talented players that don't fit into most schemes and emphasizing their strengths. By doing so they have assembled a unit that carries a chip on their collective shoulder, and they are playing well and rapidly improving. It is too early to really look at team statistics, but at this stage the Seahawks have the sixth-ranked defense in the league. To go a step further, a look at Pro Football Focus's rating system which dissects every snap and rates each individual player's performance on a down-by-down basis reveals that the Seahawks have the highest cumulative score of any defense in the league. Both of these are impressive statistics considering that five of the starters are in their first or second year, and they seem to be getting better on an almost weekly basis. One of their defining characteristics is that they are a young, hungry unit that plays fast, hits hard, and has fully bought into Carroll's scheme.
"This defense works out well for us," said Kam Chancellor, their third-year safety. "Other teams can try to figure it out or copy it, but the secret is that it's built around the players. That's what makes us unique. You can't create players exactly like the ones we have. And not everyone has that dog in them like we do. We're hungry. You can't imagine how well we work together, how much we bond, how bad we want it."
They will have a chance to make a statement on a national stage against the Packers on Monday night. The crowd will be in a frenzy, and the defense will want to make a statement. After punishing the Cowboys 27-7 last week, they hadn't even left the postgame locker room before they were already looking forward to their next test.
“Green Bay, a great team, Monday night,” Browner said. “We have to prepare like we prepared for Dallas and we’ll be OK.”
The Packers will have their work cut out for them. If they are going to succeed on offense, it is going to be an accomplishment against this up-and-coming defense.
Photo Credit: United Press International