The run that Seattle’s defense has been on over the past several years is amazing. In fact, the Seahawks defense has been historically great and can rival the fantastic units in the history of this game.
Somewhat surprisingly, Seattle has been able to keep the same core on this side of the ball. Sure, there have been changes and keeping strong groups of top players together in today’s NFL is much more difficult to do than say the ’70s Steelers, but there are seven fantastic players that have been the core of this defense: Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril, KJ Wright, Bobby Wagner, Kam Chancellor, Earl Thomas and Richard Sherman.
These seven are very different and offer a great deal to the defense overall, but with all respect to the other five, the two most important members of this group are Bennett and Thomas, two players that Seattle was without in its 14-5 defeat in Tampa Bay.
The Seahawks allowed just 14 points in that loss, and certainly the offense was much more to blame for the defeat than those on the defensive side of the ball. However, the loss of Bennett and Thomas is a major one. Thomas missed the first game of his career in Week 12 with his hamstring injury and it is unsure how long it might sideline him. As for Bennett, his knee injury has kept him out of the lineup since Week 7. Hopefully both players will be back in the lineup this week at home against the Panthers, but that is unclear at this point.
With all respect to Sherman, one of the truly elite cornerbacks in the league, and Wagner, a vastly underrated (even from a historical perspective) quarterback of this great defense without any noticeable holes in his game, what is it that makes Thomas and Bennett so important?
First off, one of the reasons that Seattle has been so outstanding on defense for so long is that its scheme can use any type of player or prospect. Its safeties are very different. The second-level linebackers all have differing skill-sets. Up front, the Seahawks’ scheme has a place for all shapes and sizes. They don’t turn their nose up at big power space-eaters or quick penetrating big men. From a scouting staff perspective, the design of this defense is a dream and in some ways, Seattle selects from a bigger deck than much of the NFL in terms of adding players.
Over the past few years, Seattle has rightfully gained the reputation of being a Cover 3 team with some press techniques and matchup zone principles. In a very broad nutshell, Sherman usually was in charge of the left side of the field, whoever the Seahawks’ second cornerback was took care of the right, and Thomas was in charge of the middle. Again, this is very broad, but these three each had one third of the field and couldn’t allow anyone to go over their head.
However, under Kris Richard, this defense is playing much more pure man coverage, often with Sherman shadowing the opponent’s best wide receiver unlike in the past, and they are throwing more at opposing offenses than in previous years. This defense was very much “execution over scheme,” but now is more scheme-oriented and varied than in recent seasons. Either way, it doesn’t change the massive importance of Thomas and Bennett in the big picture.
Thomas is the best safety in the league and has been for some time now. Like Ed Reed, Thomas does his best work in a centerfielder-like role, as the last layer of defense. He shows terrific range in the deep middle with sideline-to-sideline abilities. Thomas covers a ton of ground on the backend and forces opposing quarterbacks to thread the ball into very small windows.
This range and playmaking ability allows players like Sherman to take more risks and jump passes that they otherwise couldn’t. Not only does Thomas cover a lot of ground with great speed, burst to the ball carrier and with ideal pursuit angles, but he is a punishing hitter and sure tackler on arrival. He also is very good against the run and a highly capable blitzer if asked to do so.
Therefore, in essence, Thomas is Seattle’s eraser. As the perfect last line of defense, Thomas erases mistakes that his 10 teammates in front of him might make over the course of a game. And, as is the case mentioned with Sherman, Thomas’ sheer presence allows everyone in front of him to be more aggressive and risky to make a play — with full knowledge that Thomas has their back.
And of course, Thomas makes a ton of big plays in his own right. This is a Hall of Fame player in the prime of his career.
As for Bennett, he too is having a Hall of Fame-like career — although it doesn’t seem to be recognized enough from a national perspective. The reality with Bennett is he is just great at everything. He can line up all over the defensive front. He is an elite pass-rusher off the edge and especially when lined up on the interior. Even in a defensive tackle alignment, Bennett isn’t a liability against the run and can handle guard-center double teams. He is a force no matter how Seattle choses to use him. And the Seahawks love to move him around throughout a game to either best find a matchup for Bennett to abuse over and over, or to free up those around him. Again, he does it all just so incredibly well.
Did the Seahawks just have a hiccup in Tampa Bay or is their hold as a perennial NFC powerhouse in jeopardy? Were their weaknesses exposed this past weekend? Possibly, but the safe bet — one that history has shown us over and over — is that Seattle will be right in the thick of things deep into the playoffs. And it hopefully will be getting a huge boost with the reinsertion of its two most valuable defensive players back into the lineup.