When studying defensive secondaries, I look for a certain style that jumps off the tape. Give me a unit that dictates the flow of the game, intimidates and competes consistently at the line of scrimmage.
And in my opinion, that’s exactly what I see from the Seattle Seahawks—a secondary that plays with speed, technique and physicality.
Let’s take a closer look at this group up in Seattle and discuss why it should be considered the NFL’s top secondary as the Seahawks prep for Sunday’s NFC Championship Game versus the San Francisco 49ers.
When I talk about “game speed,” think about angles to the ball, body control at the break point and clean footwork that allows a defensive back to plant, drive and accelerate out of his cuts.
Whether that’s Earl Thomas coming downhill from the deep middle of the field, Richard Sherman breaking on the dig (square-in) or Kam Chancellor opening his hips to run underneath the curl, this group plays with speed all over the field.
It's a sign of a well-coached unit that has the ability to identify offensive concepts based on personnel, formation, alignment and wide receiver splits.
You want to play fast, play aggressively at the pro level? Then let the offense tell you a story at the line of scrimmage. Use that information from your game prep to play with confidence.
In Cover 1, Cover 3, etc., this group can close on the football with speed.
If you have read my posts this season, then you know how much I value technique (footwork, angles, eyes, leverage, etc.) in the secondary.
Technique wins. And it will always win regardless of the matchup the offense wants to create on the field.
This Seattle secondary has real talent. We all know that.
Thomas is the best safety in the game. And I have no problem saying that when looking at his range, ball skills, footwork, etc., Sherman is in the discussion as one of the top players at the cornerback position, while Chancellor has the ideal size/speed combination for this scheme in Seattle.
However, it is its ability to mesh talent with technique on game days that allows this unit to consistently play at a high level.
And it doesn’t end with just Thomas, Sherman and Chancellor. Those might be the names we all recognize but look at Byron Maxwell. He has stepped into the lineup at cornerback and continued that style of play because of his technique at the line of scrimmage, through the route stem, etc.
This Seahawks as a whole showcase the ability to use their hands, win with their feet and put themselves in a position to make a play because of technique.
This group will put a helmet on you. That’s the best way to say it. And I love seeing that on the tape because it’s the same film opposing offenses have to watch when they prep for the Seahawks.
The ability to dictate the flow of the game from the secondary is a beautiful thing, and it starts with a physical style of play.
It's press-man at the line of scrimmage and clean, violent collisions when the ball is thrown underneath or between the numbers.
Here’s a quick view of the Seahawks secondary showing press-man against the 49ers.
This impacts how wide receivers play the game. Whether that means working versus press-man all day, or having to secure the catch, while consistently taking a hit in the middle of the field, this style of football is key to limiting offensive call sheets.
But don’t forget about the run game. The Seahawks will support the edge, replace on crack blocks to squeeze the formation and wrap up on contact. They are quick with their run-pass keys and get downhill to attack the ball-carrier.
There is something to be said for a secondary that can intimidate with its pads—because that stands out on the film.
Single-High Safety Defenses
Under Pete Carroll, the Seahawks are going to lean on single-high safety defenses (Cover 1, Cover 3) in both their base and nickel packages.
But it’s their Cover 3 scheme (and technique) that we need to discuss. Think of a zone shell (three-deep, four-under) with Thomas in the deep middle of the field.
This is a basic zone coverage, but no one in the NFL runs it as much as the Seahawks. And they whip teams doing it.
Here’s a standard playbook diagram of Cover 3 versus a curl-flat concept out of Regular/21 personnel (2WR-1TE-2RB) in a Pro Weak I formation.
The "Will" ‘backer (W) and strong safety (SS) buzz through the curl and widen with the flat (curl-flat defenders), with the "Mike" ‘backer (M) and "Sam" ‘backer (S) playing the middle hook (or hook-curl) inside of the numbers.
In the back end, both cornerbacks (C) are playing off and to the outside (outside one-third technique) with the free safety (FS) in the deep middle of the field. The cornerbacks will maintain that outside leverage position and funnel the receivers to the safety help.
However, in Seattle, the cornerbacks will play from a press-alignment, jam/re-route and match any vertical release (with the underneath defenders playing zone) as Chris Brown recently discussed in his post at Grantland.
Here’s Seattle in Cover 3 “Buzz” (strong safety drops down as a hook-curl defender). Both cornerbacks are in a press-alignment to match No. 1 outside of the numbers with the underneath defenders playing their zone technique.
Now check out the Seahawks (in Cover 3) versus the St. Louis Rams deep dig/post combination with Thomas in a position to play both routes.
As you can see here, both Sherman and Maxwell match to the outside verticals and funnel the receivers to Thomas in the middle of the field. Underneath, the zone defenders get to their landmark drops and are in a position to drive downhill on the flat/check down.
Here's one more look at Cover 3 with Chancellor buzzing to the flat versus the Arizona Cardinals on an outside breaking route.
With Sherman using a closed-angle technique (head-whip/baseball turn) to get back in-phase versus wide receiver Michael Floyd, Chancellor keeps his hips open to the quarterback, drops at a 45 degree angle and buzzes underneath the out to impact this throw.
That’s excellent technique from the Seahawks' strong safety to drop with that amount of speed/depth to take away an outside breaking route.
The Matchup vs. the 49ers
The tape from Week 14 is a good one to study, as it shows the Seahawks leaning on their Cover 3 scheme (along with some Cover 1/pressure) against quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the 49ers' core run game.
Think eight-man fronts with the corners playing from a press position outside of the numbers.
As I wrote in my All-22 notes, the 49ers will look to target the classic three-deep beaters (inside seam, three-level concepts, slant-flat, curl-flat, etc.) to work the ball to Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis.
But in terms of the Seahawks secondary, expect more of the same. This group is going to compete. It is an impressive unit that has produced all season because of the speed, technique and physicality it brings to the stadium on game day.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.