During the first two years under head coach Pete Carroll, listing the strengths of the Seattle Seahawks defense would have been a quick article. Heading into the 2011 season, there were more questions than answers, and the odds were against the unit escaping from the mid-20s rankings of years past.
But Carroll insisted that he liked the talent on the team and the defense in particular.
After the season concluded, it was much easier to see why.
The team showed the solid run defense from early in 2010 for an entire season, and questions in the secondary turned into areas of strength.
Defensive coordinator Gus Bradley helped forge a top-10 unit, utilizing size, youth and speed to create turnovers and stymie opponents.
The following slides break down the components of the 2012 Seahawks defense, starting with the areas that should be good in 2012 and progressing to excellent.
For Seahawks fans, having any component of the team described as excellent is a nice start.
Middle linebacker gets the lowest rank due to the uncertainty at the position. This is the only position that doesn't return the starter from 2011, but that was by design.
The Seahawks made a concerted effort to re-sign their free agents. They brought back Marshawn Lynch, Red Bryant, Leroy Hill, Michael Robinson, Breno Giacomini, Paul McQuistan...they even brought back Roy Lewis.
Meanwhile, David Hawthorne entered free agency and wasn't offered a new contract.
It was clear that Seattle wanted to go in a different direction, wanting more speed and coverage skills from its linebackers.
It will be a good battle between second-round draft pick Bobby Wagner and Bradley's former middle linebacker Barrett Ruud.
Ruud has the advantage of experience and a track record with Bradley, while Wagner got a leg up in the competition working with the first unit over the summer as Ruud recovered from injuries.
Seattle should at least hold steady at middle linebacker. Hawthorne was a decent tackler but missed assignments in the passing game.
They shouldn't have that issue in 2012 and could see a decent bump in performance.
The linebacker positions could be feast or famine for the Seahawks. Leroy Hill will return under another one-year contract and should be a solid run defender.
K.J. Wright showed promise as a rookie in 2011 and could become a quality defender this season. He plays well against the run and should be a solid pass defender.
The Seahawks saw enough of him early last season to recognize that former fourth-overall pick Aaron Curry was expendable. Wright will be an every-down player for Seattle in 2012.
Hill may surrender time in passing situations to a player like Winston Guy or even Ruud or Malcolm Smith.
Korey Toomer has a chance to snag significant playing time this season, as well, and could be a part of a young trio going forward with Wright and Wagner.
Defensive end was a tale of two duties in 2011. Against the run Red Bryant and Chris Clemons were stout and performed well.
However, the edge pressure seemed to begin and end with Clemons. Raheem Brock was re-signed during training camp last season but didn't add much punch. He was slower than in years past and couldn't catch quarterbacks before they escaped up the middle.
Anthony Hargrove provided some pressure, but there simply wasn't a consistent pass rush beyond that from Clemons.
Seattle opted to select Bruce Irvin in the first round of April's draft. Time will tell if that was a quality gamble or not.
The Seahawks need Irvin to be a double-digit sack machine this season, and he has the speed to do it...so long as he can develop an inside move or two. If Irvin responds, then defensive end will be a strength for this team.
If Irvin or another pass-rusher doesn't step forward, the defense as a whole will suffer.
It is hard to believe defensive tackle isn't higher on the board. The Seahawks had the NFC's leading interior tackler last season in Brandon Mebane. Alan Branch showed he can be trusted in rush and passing downs and returns to the team in a contract season.
Seattle also added some quality talent, securing the best interior pass-rusher in free agency. Jason Jones will likely be asked to put pressure on opposing quarterbacks from the middle and will certainly help corral scramblers that try to escape through the front of the pocket.
Jones is very athletic and has the speed to chase down most quarterbacks.
Seattle added another talented pass-rusher in the draft, selecting Jaye Howard in the fourth round. He could be seen as the future next to Mebane, as Jones will also be a free agent next year.
Greg Scruggs is another player that could figure into Seattle's pass-rush needs. Even though he was a seventh-round pick, the Seahawks see great potential. He was limited his senior year with a turf toe injury but does, in fact, have that potential.
The biggest problem the defensive line has with advancing on this list is that if its does its job well, it will push quarterbacks to make quicker decisions and attempt to force throws. That will likely lead to more interceptions, improving the ranking of the secondary.
The line isn't likely to worry much about where it falls, though, as long as the team is winning.
A year ago the cornerback positions were huge uncertainties for the Seahawks. They had a CFL player that couldn't stick in the NFL in his first opportunity on one side. The other slot was being manned by a former Pro Bowl player that had been seriously hampered by injuries the last two seasons.
Beyond that there were a couple young players and Walter Thurmond, a player with great potential that couldn't stay healthy.
Who would have thought that Marcus Trufant and Thurmond suffering season-ending injuries would lead to such amazing results?
Third-string corner Richard Sherman joined Brandon Browner in the starting lineup, and the two proceeded to shut down opposing receivers for most of the last 10 weeks of the season.
Browner struggled early in the year, needing time to adjust to the tighter rules of the NFL. He also struggled with faster receivers, an issue Gus Bradley was eventually able to work around.
They will be back in 2012 with a season of NFL ball under their belts and with a strong set of backups.
Trufant will transition to a nickel role, which should lead to great results. He won't often be tasked with the taller receivers that gave him issues, and the lighter workload should help with his back issues.
Jeremy Lane is this season's exciting rookie corner, and Roy Lewis, Byron Maxwell and Ron Parker will also be vying for roster spots. If Thurmond is healthy, he provides quality depth and will work into some bandit packages.
With an improved pass rush, Seattle's corners should provide more explosive plays. Browner already set a team record for the most interception-return yards in a season, and Sherman had four interceptions in 10 starts.
Browner got the Pro Bowl nod last year, but Sherman will challenge him for the top billing on the defense this season.
Seattle has a few potential stars in the making. The also have an established star in Earl Thomas.
So long as Thomas stays healthy, this is the Seahawks' best position on the defensive side of the ball—and quite possibly the team as a whole.
Thomas uses his speed and athleticism to be a force in pass and run defense. There were criticisms of his tackling efforts coming out of Texas, but those that saw him on a regular basis in Seattle recognized that he doesn't miss many opportunities to bring down ball-carriers.
Defenses avoided throwing in Thomas' area last season after he notched five interceptions in his rookie year. He did have several picks taken away due to defensive penalties last season.
The creation of a pass rush would provide even more turnovers for the secondary in 2012.
The issue with free safety is depth, as Thomas is the only free safety on the roster.
Seattle has a few cornerbacks that can fill in if needed. Chris Maragos might make the 53-man roster simply for his ability to back up Thomas, although Jeron Johnson will likely see time in the preseason at free safety to see if he can provide a security net should Thomas miss any time.
Roy Lewis has also seen time at free safety with the Seahawks' second defensive unit during summer camps. Pete Carroll sees him as a versatile option that could fill several needs, telling The Seattle Times: "Roy is a great competitor, and he knows it just makes him more valuable to us, and he's doing a nice job with that stuff. He already plays nickel, and he can play corner if we need him, and in the safety work he's getting he's done a very good job of that."
But Thomas is the talent on this team. He was voted to his first Pro Bowl last season and should be a fixture there and for the Seahawks for many years to come.
Some fans will be upset that Thomas isn't top dog on the defense, but listing strong safety as the strongest position isn't a reflection of Kam Chancellor vs. Earl Thomas.
Rather, it is the combination of Chancellor, Winston Guy and Johnson providing depth at the position and solid options in pass defense.
Look for Chancellor to continue to be a lethal force in pass defense and run support. His speed and ability to play free safety were concerns coming out of college, and a slow combine time (4.62 seconds) caused his stock to drop.
There were reasons behind the slow time, and Chancellor plays faster than his timed speed.
Chancellor closes quite quickly and didn't miss many opportunities to levy big hits last season. Opposing receivers and even tight ends will be reluctant to go deep over the middle—don't expect many heroics attempting to bail out quarterbacks and errant throws.
Guy will be given the chance to earn opportunities in coverage and blitz packages. Seattle was excited to get him in the sixth round, and coach Carroll sees him making an immediate impact (via The Seattle Times):
I really like this player. I think he brings more than we had hoped at this early time. His speed is very good, instincts are excellent, he's got a lot to learn to not make the boneheaded mistakes and things, but he's going to play for us and be a part of what we're doing.
Guy played both safety positions and could also be an option to back up Thomas if needed.