By Chris Cluff
As much criticism as Pete Carroll takes for the somewhat haphazard way he has built Seattle’s offense, he deserves all of the credit in the world for putting together a defense that might end up being the best in team history.
After shutting down Cam Newton and the explosive Carolina Panthers, holding them to 190 yards and three points, Seattle now ranks No. 1 in the league in yards allowed and No. 2 in scoring defense.
The Seattle defense has not given up a touchdown in the past two games, and it has given up just two TDs in the past four contests — and the Packers’ fourth-quarter TD in that infamous Monday night game was made possible by a bogus third-down pass interference call against Kam Chancellor (if that flag had not been thrown, the firestorm at the end likely would have been avoided).
Carroll and general manager John Schneider have built this dominant defense as if they were MacGyver — with a little bubble gum, some rubber bands, some copper wire and a couple of AA batteries.
They started with some leftovers from the Mike Holmgren/Tim Ruskell regime: linemen Brandon Mebane and Red Bryant, linebacker Leroy Hill and nickel back Marcus Trufant, the senior member of the team in his 10th season. Bryant, who had languished on the bench under Holmgren and Jim Mora, has become a standout in Carroll’s defense.
Carrneider built the rest of the unit via a couple of trades (Chris Clemons and Clinton McDonald), a couple of mid-priced free agents (Alan Branch and Jason Jones), a CFL export (Brandon Browner) and a bunch of draft picks (first-rounders Earl Thomas and Bruce Irvin, second-rounder Bobby Wagner, fourth-rounder K.J. Wright and fifth-rounders Richard Sherman and Chancellor).
Led by Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, the unit has quickly become one of the best in the league.
Everyone could see this defense developing last season, when it finished ninth overall and seventh in scoring while ranking fourth in rushing yards per attempt.
The big failing in 2011 was the pass rush, which generated just 33 sacks, and the Hawks made it a priority to fix that by adding Jones, Irvin and Wagner.
It has paid big dividends already: The Seahawks have 16 sacks. Clemons — who tallied 11 in each of the last two seasons — naturally leads the way with 5.5 this year. But he has had help this time. The new guys have combined for 7.5 — 4.5 by Irvin and 1.5 each by Jones and Wagner.
Irvin got Newton twice Sunday, including the fumble-inducing sack that ended any chance of a Carolina comeback in the final minute. Wagner was in on two sacks, sharing one with Clemons.
Some of those 16 sacks have been products of the secondary blanketing receivers. Carroll credited Sherman and Browner for that.
“Those guys have been out there on an island every week,” Carroll told reporters, per The News Tribune. “That’s what allows us to play the defense that we’re playing. Those two guys played terrific (against Carolina). Just a fantastic game by the corners.”
It helps significantly that they are backed up over the top by Pro Bowl safeties Thomas and Chancellor.
Meanwhile, the edge rushers have benefitted from the Pro Bowl-caliber play of Mebane inside. He, Branch and Bryant are leading the charge against the run and — along with McDonald and Jones — have pushed the pocket on passing plays at times.
Mebane, who is playing out of his mind this season, has a couple of sacks and three batted passes and has been a nearly constant presence in the backfields of opposing offenses. He stuffed the Panthers on their first two running plays Sunday.
As awesome as this defense is, it naturally evokes comparisons to the best unit in Seahawks history: the star-studded 1984 group coached by Tom Catlin and headlined by Kenny Easley, Jacob Green, Jeff Bryant, Joe Nash and Dave Brown. They set the team record with 38 interceptions, had 55 sacks and still stand as the highest-ranked defense in team history (sixth overall, fifth in scoring).
Can this unit trump Catlin’s all-star bunch and remain the No. 1 defense in the league?
“It doesn’t mean much right now. It’d be really nice to be No. 1 at the end,” Carroll said. “It’s a good statement at the beginning of the season that our guys have gotten off to a great start. … It’s fun for those guys to know — it’s a very prideful group. But does it mean anything? Not really. What we’re going to do this week is what counts.”
This week, the New England Patriots, who have the No. 1 offense in the league, can count on a long day against the NFL’s most dominant defense — one that might be the best Seattle has ever had.
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Chris Cluff worked as a sports editor and writer for The Seattle Times for 11 years and has written two books on the Seattle Seahawks. Since leaving the Times, he has written about the Seahawks and Seattle sports for Bleacher Report and the blog he shares with a fellow sportswriter, outsidethepressbox.com. His work can be found on Examiner.com.