Speed a priority for Seahawks defense

Photo courtesy of Seahawks

By Claire Farnsworth, Seahawks.com 

What’s the most impressive element of the Seahawks’ top-ranked defense?

Prior to the season opener in Carolina, Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith pointed to the Seahawks’ physical secondary … and the unit’s overall speed. The week of the home opener against the 49ers, San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh also started with the star-studded secondary … but didn’t stop until he too had mentioned the speed. Last week, when former defensive coordinator Gus Bradley returned to Seattle as head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars, he discussed how he’s trying to build a defense like the one he coordinated with the Seahawks … starting with the speed of the unit.

This week, Houston Texans coach Gary Kubiak cut to the chase when asked what jumps out about the Seahawks defense his offense is preparing to face Sunday at Reliant Stadium.

“I think the speed, that’s No. 1,” he said. “Just very active, fly to the ball, don’t give up big plays. Obviously their two corners, Richard Sherman and Brandon Browner are great players and can lock people down. But I just think their overall effort and speed and the way they rally to the football; big, big challenge for us.”

And that was the challenge for Pete Carroll after he was hired as the Seahawks coach in 2010 – finding players who could play defense the way he wants it played, starting with that speed.

“It’s always been one of the aspects of building a defense that we wanted to stand by, because you need to chase the football and it’s such an advantage when your guys can fly,” Carroll said.

So Carroll and general manager John Schneider wasted no time in finding those flyers.

In their first offseason together, they traded for Chris Clemons, whose skills are a perfect match for the Leo end spot in Carroll’s defense. Starting with his speed. Clemons ran the 40-yard in 4.62 seconds coming out of Georgia in 2003.  The NFL Draft that year delivered Earl Thomas, whose 4.37-second speed in the 40 allows him to be the centerfielder of a free safety that is imperative in Carroll’s defense; Kam Chancellor, who has enough speed (4.59 seconds) and more than enough muscle to fill the strong safety role; and nickel back Walter Thurmond, who plays even faster than his speed (4.53) would indicate.

In 2011, those cornerbacks Kubiak mentioned were added – Sherman in the draft and Browner as a free agent after playing four seasons in CFL. As with the safeties, Sherman is fast (4.53) and Browner is faster (4.63) than a guy who is 6 feet 4 and 221 pounds should be. The draft also delivered linebackers K.J. Wright, whose length compensates for his lack of elite speed (4.71); and Malcolm Smith, who has that elite speed (4.44).

Last year, Carroll wanted more speed at the middle linebacker position and an edge pass-rusher to complement Clemons. He found both in the NFL Draft, selecting leading tackler Bobby Wagner (4.46) in the second round and Bruce Irvin (4.5) in the first. Irvin is currently serving the final week of his four-game suspension to open this season, but he led all NFL rookies with eight sacks last season.

This year, free agency delivered rush-end Cliff Avril (4.51) and the versatile O’Brien Schofield (4.61) was claimed off waivers.

“The hard part,” Carroll said, “is when you want to be big and strong and also be able to fly around. So we kind of mix. We have a couple big guys that sit inside and then we try to have a lot of speed at all the spots around it.”

And how’s the working out as the Seahawks look to start 4-0 for the first time in franchise history? The Seahawks have generated 10 turnovers, which ties for second in the league, while allowing the fewest points and average yards in the NFL.

But this unit’s signature trait is how well its players run to the ball. Freeze frame just about any tackle and there are three or four or even five other players in that frame who could have made the tackle.

“That’s what makes our defense what it is right now, we’re like piranhas,” Thomas said. “We’re all around the ball. When you watch the film, you see a lot of blue jerseys – or whatever jerseys we’re wearing that week – around the ball.

“The second man in always is going for the ball and that puts a lot on the ball carrier’s mind. When you’re running with the ball you have to have ball security. We’re ball conscious around here.”

Asked if he has ever played on a defense this fast, Avril laughed before offering, “Nah. I mean not too many defenses out there are this quick. Our guys on the back end; Earl is one of the fastest guys I’ve probably been around and those guys back there are pretty quick."

So quick that if you blink you might miss your chance to make play, for much of the day.

“Big Red and I were talking about this just the other day,” Avril said. “It’s like if you miss a play you probably won’t be able to make one for another couple series because our defense is so good and guys are out there making big plays.”

All that speed allows the Seahawks defenders to play even faster, if that makes any sense. As Thomas explained it, “If we mess up mentality, it allows us to recover fast and stop them for a minimal gain.”

Then there’s that attack-mode mentality which comes with, and enhances, all this speed.

“If you’re slow, you’re never going to get to the ball around here,” Wagner said. “There’s 10 other guys trying to get to the ball, and they’re not going to wait for you. On a defense like this, you’ve got to make the plays that come to you or you’ll never have that chance again.

“We’re just a bunch of fast guys trying to make plays and it’s fun to be in on.”