Defensive leaders explain resurgence

Bobby Wagner signals Seattle ball after a takeaway against the Eagles (Seahawks.com)The Seahawks’ late surge was born of roster health, leadership and camaraderie — things that were missing at midseason — and the Hawks have emphasized for the past three weeks that they are playing for each other more than ever now. And, because of that, they are able to play smarter and faster.

With every win, they reinforce the reborn mantra that they will continue to win if they trust each other.

After the 24-14 win over the Philadelphia Eagles on Sunday, Kam Chancellor was asked if the defense had sent a message. He said yeah, “but the message wasn’t to anyone outside of this team. The message is to each other.”

It’s a reinforcement of the team spirit the Hawks had last year, when Chris Clemons and Red Bryant were key leaders on the defense. The Hawks didn’t seem to have filled that leadership void until coach Pete Carroll met with his key players last month, and Chancellor took the lead and helped reconnect his teammates.

After the Seahawks shut down the San Francisco 49ers on Thanksgiving, Chancellor said, “I look at this team like my hand. When I’m just holding my hand open, there are different tendons, different fingers, different parts. But when I ball my hand up, it creates a fist, a tight fist, and creates a powerful punch. That’s what I look at this team as.”

Michael Bennett said the Hawks have returned to selflessness and are purely about winning.

“The difference between the Seahawks and a lot of other teams is that we genuinely care about each other. We genuinely want to see the next person make a play,” he said. “Whenever I see Earl (Thomas) make an interception, I feel like I got the interception and whenever I see Marshawn (Lynch) make a big run, I feel like I made a big run. I think that’s what the difference between our team and other teams is: the way that we play for each other.”

He likened it to a college team atmosphere. “It’s not even about the money; it’s about the person who is playing next to you and you’re willing to go out there and do that next step to make that person make the play. … It’s not really a selfish team. Everybody is going to be where they’re supposed to be at, and that’s just how it is.”

Bennett credited Carroll for the humble approach to the game, but he said, “It has to be the players that believe in that.”

Bennett said the Seahawks are focused on playing together so they can win the Super Bowl, not garnering stats so they can go to the Pro Bowl.

“For us to not care about being statistically at the top of the league says a lot about the character of our team,” he said. “And I think that’s what’s different (about) us is that we actually care about each other and we’re buying into that philosophy. We’re almost like the (San Antonio) Spurs. For our team, so young, we’ve had so much success; we’ve already had the big contracts, already been to the Pro Bowl, the All-Pros, all those things, the Super Bowl championship. For us, it’s all about winning. Statistically, we could (not) care less about any of those things; it’s all about the W’s.”

And it comes not just from Carroll, but from his young veterans — Bennett, Chancellor, Thomas, Sherman, et al.

By now, everyone knows the story: Carroll had a powwow with his top players and asked them to take control of the team-first message. Then Thomas yelled at some sunflower-eating linemen and Bennett asked Chancellor to give the pregame speech before the Hawks went out and beat Arizona 19-3.

Chancellor’s relative return to health and his emergence as a vocal leader have been huge boons to the Hawks.

“He’s always been a voice. He’s always been a guy that our guys look up to since he was back in his first year,” Carroll said. “He just commanded the respect because he was such a stud player and such a great kid. I think he felt really comfortable with moving ahead with what we needed at this time and (he has) been a great spokesperson. He’s not alone, but it’s been noticeable and it’s been a real thrill to watch it happen because we really believe in the kid and love him. So for him to just embrace what’s going on, I think he and the 12 guys that we started with a couple weeks ago (in the meeting) have really been instrumental in spreading the word.”

Meanwhile, in the background there has been plenty of less-noticed leadership going on as veterans such as Bennett and Sherman have taken under their wings young guys such as Jordan Hill and Tharold Simon — who both basically redshirted their rookie season in 2013 due to injuries but are now starting to become big contributors.

Bennett revealed that he has been tutoring Hill, a third-round pick last year.

“I’ve been working with Jordan for the last six, seven weeks, just every day before practice for like 20 minutes,” Bennett said, “trying to give him the tips that people gave me along the way.”

Of Simon, Sherman said, “I think I saw a little bit of myself in him. I also saw a little Brandon Browner in some of his ways. I think he has the potential to be a great corner in this league and I want him to reach that potential. Anything I can do to help him, I’m trying to do.”

All of the leadership has fine-tuned the Seattle defense into a unit that might now be playing even better than it was last year, when it turned in one of the greatest seasonal performances in NFL history.

With Wagner, Chancellor and Maxwell back, the defense has 10 of its 11 starters (Brandon Mebane is out for the season), and the Hawks know their roles and are therefore capable of turning it loose.

Sherman said the thing that made the defense so dominant last year was the fact that the 11 players were thinking as one and recognizing what offenses were trying to do. That allowed the Seahawks to play faster.

“I think certain players were better at diagnosing than others at different points last year,” Sherman said, “and I think at one point we came together as a defense and started recognizing formations as an entire unit — recognizing what we thought was coming, what plays were coming, what formations dictated certain things, understanding down and distance. …

“And I think that has carried over to this year. I think that’s what’s helping us on this journey, this good run we’re on as a defense and as a team. It’s recognizing the formations, understanding how they’re trying to attack you.”

He said the return to health of Wagner, Chancellor and Maxwell has been key.

“There’s a different level of communication with those guys than there are with the young guys like Brock Coyle and KPL (Kevin Pierre-Louis). Those (rookies) play with tremendous effort and talent, but I think their understanding is a couple years behind guys like Bobby and Kam.”

“Our guys have been together a long time now,” Carroll said. “Even though they’re still only four years old in the league or whatever, they have still been together a long time and done a lot of stuff together.”

Sherman called Wagner, Chancellor and Thomas “erasers” who can make up for missteps by teammates.

The defense missed tons of tackles in the 24-20 loss in Kansas City, but that has not been an issue during this remarkable three-game run in which the Hawks have given up an average of 169 yards and under seven points per game.

“Tackling improves when everybody is playing really fast,” Carroll said. “It just is better. There’s more guys right there. There’s more hands on the ballcarrier. … I think that’s all part of the intensity and the pursuit thing. It really pays off. You don’t notice a guy miss one when the other guy hits. You can’t even tell a guy missed a tackle sometimes because the next guy makes the play. All of that fits together.”

Together. That’s what the Seahawks are now — thanks to their young leaders.

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