Bye weeks during the NFL playoffs are great for rest and healing. Experimentation, too.
Until Sunday the Seattle Seahawks, top seeds in the NFC playoff draw, could only guess who they would host this weekend. But knowing the Carolina Panthers and quarterback Cam Newton were a strong possibility, the defense practiced a skill that isn’t typically on the game plan: defending the option.
“I’m sure they’re going to try some things to get us off balance – some option and stuff,” said outside linebacker K.J. Wright.
Wright is well aware of the various ways Newton can beat a team. Yet in each of three meetings over the past three seasons, all in Charlotte, Seattle has held the Panthers to 12 or fewer points. Carolina’s offense generated just one touchdown in 28 possessions in those games.
Not that the Seahawks are getting cocky about containing Newton.
“He’s really good – a dual-threat guy who can run it and throw it,” said Wright, in his fourth NFL season. “He’s going to do some stuff with that option game to get our eyes going different places.
“It’s so important we rely on our keys, doing stuff the right way.”
For the third consecutive season the Seahawks led the NFL in scoring defense, allowing 15.9 points per game this season. They allowed 15.3 and 14.4 the previous two. Defensive coordinator Dan Quinn, a candidate for several NFL head-coaching jobs, is known for his meticulousness. He used the bye week well in that regard.
“He makes it really simple for us. That allows us to play fast and not guess out there,” Wright said.
Even when Newton is improvising, as he was while scrambling for first downs against the Arizona Cardinals?
“You have to drop back (into coverage) and at the same time be watching him,” Wright said. “When you do have a spy player (specifically assigned to shadow Newton’s movements) he has to be aware that he can scramble and still throw the ball.
“You’ve got to stick with your (receiver) and just trust that somebody is going to get to the quarterback. Everybody has to be tight and do their jobs to avoid explosive plays.”
That term “explosive play” is a big emphasis with the Seahawks. Coach Pete Carroll defines it as any run of 12 or more yards or any pass completion of 16 or more yards.
By that measure the Seahawks allowed the fewest explosive plays in the NFL this season – 76. The Denver Broncos were second at 86, the New York Jets third at 90.
A lot of that is about the trust built up through shared experience. This defense is mostly intact from last season’s Super Bowl run, particularly the secondary, nicknamed the “Legion of Boom.”
The Seahawks allow the fewest passing yards per game in the NFL at 185.6. Seattle has 11 interceptions in its past 10 games.
The most prominent of Seattle’s defensive backs, cornerback Richard Sherman doesn’t seem particularly concerned with Newton’s ability to extend plays with his feet.
“We tackle well. A lot of teams get in trouble when they don’t tackle well against them,” Sherman said.
“If you don’t tackle Cam, he’ll make you pay for it, both with his arm and his legs. I think people underestimate his scrambling ability because some games he won’t scramble very much at all and the next game he’ll run for 120.”
Sherman said Seattle’s linemen and linebackers trust the secondary to contain receivers and, likewise, the secondary trusts the front seven to hem in Newton.
“We cover back there as long as a play takes. We don’t really worry about what’s going on in the backfield,” Sherman said.
“I think that’s where defenses get in trouble a little bit – when you start worrying about him in the secondary. You’ve got to trust your front guys to do their jobs and get him contained. Then, if he crosses the line of scrimmage, all bets are off.”