The Seattle Seahawks' Legion of Boom defense has set an impossibly high standard over the last handful of years. It has led the NFL in scoring defense in each of the last four seasons, a feat unequaled in the post-merger era—only the Cleveland Browns of 1953-57 had done it before.
To have made that mark in a time when things are entirely favorable to passing offenses is even more remarkable. And it's why any little slip in that defensive performance can cause a lot of agita in the Emerald City. So when the New York Jets' Brandon Marshall beat Richard Sherman a couple of times in Week 4, it was a big deal. When Earl Thomas misses deep assignments and leaves openings for opposing passing games, it gets noticed.
More is expected of these guys because more has been given.
And when the Atlanta Falcons visited CenturyLink Field and put up 220 yards through the air and three passing touchdowns in the third quarter of a 26-24 Week 6 loss—one that many believe might have been a win for the league's top offense were it not for an uncalled pass interference penalty on Sherman late in the game—it was a big deal. Sherman certainly thought so; his sideline tantrum got as much notice as the defensive issues on the field, and the Seahawks seemed to rally in the fourth quarter.
But the allowance of that Falcons outburst, as uncharacteristic as it was, showed a dangerous flaw in the Seattle defense: If everyone's not on the same page, things can go wrong in a hurry.
The Seahawks defense is not complicated. Most of the time, it plays a Cover 3 zone base out of the nickel defense. So you could call it a 4-2-5 zone-base scheme with two island cornerbacks (Sherman and whoever bookends him), a deep safety (Thomas) and a rover safety (Kam Chancellor, when he's healthy).
Head coach Pete Carroll has specific attributes in mind for his defensive backs: They must be aggressive, technically sound, ruthlessly competitive and smart. They're not protected by advanced schemes, which is why communication between those defensive backs is so important.
The first factor that led to the three touchdowns in that third quarter was that Chancellor was out with a groin injury. This was significant because Chancellor is a huge part of the unit's on-field communication for coverage indicators and receiver splits. Chancellor was replaced by Kelcie McCray, an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas State who has mostly performed on special teams throughout his five-year career. After the game, Sherman spoke about miscommunication with McCray adding to his frustration.
The second problem for the Legion of Boom was that Atlanta's receiver splits are designed to mess with defensive positioning. Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan loves to move tight ends and running backs out wide pre-snap, especially to the side of the formation with more receivers, which tilts the field and forces a defense to adjust. On the first of the three touchdowns, a 36-yarder from Matt Ryan to Julio Jones in which Jones ran through the Seattle defense, it was clear the Sherman/McCray side got something wrong.
Pre-snap, the call was for rookie tight end Austin Hooper to motion from the right-side H-back position to the far left, outside Jones. The optimal design for the Seahawks would have been to have Sherman covering Jones as much as possible, but Sherman's assignment appeared to be to carry the widest receiver and for McCray to adjust to Jones.
It was not the best matchup for Seattle even if McCray were in place, which he wasn't. Was McCray confused by the fact that linebacker K.J. Wright stayed at intermediate coverage depth instead of following Hooper? That we don't know, but it's obvious McCray thought there was a deeper coverage option for Jones when there wasn't. The result was about as easy of a score as Jones will ever have, and Sherman's sideline meltdown came after this play.
So, that was one example of Shanahan using a formation switch to beat a static defense. It wasn't the last.
The second touchdown, a 10-yarder from Ryan to Mohamed Sanu on the next drive, came on a different concept. Sanu was lined up in the left slot, ran a quick out route and cornerback Jeremy Lane broke late to the ball.
It appeared as if Lane was watching tight end Jacob Tamme run his route down the middle of the field, and he was caught in two places at once—his feet broke toward Sanu, but his head was aligned toward Tamme a second too long. This was easy pickings for Ryan, because if a base-zone defender is late to his assignment and alignment, the opposing quarterback and receiver will have giant holes in coverage to exploit.
The third touchdown, a 46-yarder from Ryan to tight end Levine Toilolo on the next drive, was the most befuddling. Sherman had Jones on the outside, while Toilolo and Tamme ran a seam-out combo, stressing Seattle's intermediate coverage.
I'm loath to blame a particular player unless I've confirmed with that player or one of his coaches where the fault lies, but it's evident on this play that Sherman is out of step, playing man coverage on Jones while the rest of the Seattle defense plays Cover 3.
At the snap, Sherman followed Jones inside, leaving McCray to cover both tight ends on that side—hardly a successful coverage paradigm. Linebacker Bobby Wagner had the assignment on Jones' shallow cross, because he took Jones as the receiver entered his area. Then, Sherman broke back to the boundary and to Toilolo, who was completely uncovered.
Blaming McCray for this doesn't seem appropriate, because if McCray covered Toilolo, Ryan still had a big play to Tamme if he timed the throw to beat Thomas, who was coming from his deep safety spot. The most the Falcons would have got out of Jones on that play was an underneath completion.
The breakdown is especially egregious when you compare it to the first touchdown and realize they were the same concept: the two inside receivers stressing coverage with a seam and an outside route and the outside receiver taking the outside cornerback out of the play with a quick angular route. Seattle should have seen that coming and reacted accordingly. Kudos to the Falcons, though, for recognizing this structural flaw and exploiting it for all it was worth.
In both cases, Sherman may have followed the outside man too long, leaving himself out of place, and I believe that happened on the final touchdown. It reminded me of another play—a game-winner for Seattle's opponent, another NFC South team, also playing at CenturyLink Field, which also came on a busted coverage against a tight end.
In Week 6 of last season, the Seahawks had a 23-20 lead with 37 seconds left against the Carolina Panthers, who later unseated them as NFC champions in the playoffs. The Panthers had 2nd-and-10 at the Seattle 26-yard line, and both Thomas and Sherman were on the same side of the field. Tight end Greg Olsen ran right through the two defenders for the game-winning touchdown.
How did this happen? Well, after the game, I was in a scrum of reporters asking Thomas about it, and he said this: "We had some people playing 'L.A.;' we had some people playing another coverage. But when stuff is going on like that, we've got to play the right call.
"Coach Richard said he called 'L.A.' Sherm was playing L.A., which is true, and I was playing a Cover 3. Kam was playing Cover 3 also; the whole backside was playing Cover 3. But I think Sherm was so close to the sideline, he got the correct call. We didn't get the job done."
"L.A." is a Cover 2 defense, which would have had Sherman passing Olsen off to Thomas. In the Cover 3 scheme Thomas thought the Seahawks were playing, that doesn't happen—Sherman is responsible for his man in that case.
"That was just kind of a fluky play," Sherman told me then. "Because we were playing two different plays at the same time. Anytime you do that, it's tough in this league. It's not going to work out well. But we'll correct it. Obviously, there's a miscommunication somewhere, there's a disconnect somewhere and we'll correct that."
During his Monday press conference, Carroll was asked if the Toilolo play brought the Olsen coverage gaffe to mind.
"Yeah, kind of. Just not being on the same page," Carroll said, according to a transcript from the team's media department. "What was clear to me is that Kam is a big factor. We don't see that stuff—I can't remember another game when Kam was playing—I don't know. He has such a connection and skills at communicating and all that that Kelcie couldn't have that; he hasn't played enough with our guys. He's been there, but it's not the same.
"We have to adapt to that. Kelcie played really well, he did a nice job in the game, but still the communication is not as good, otherwise it wouldn't matter if we played together for five years. It matters, and there's something to that. I thought it was evident that that happened."
The difference then and now?
Chancellor was on the field for the Olsen touchdown in which a coverage call came in late from the sideline; he wasn't for the on-field miscommunications against the Falcons.
But there's one thing that was clear in both instances: No matter how talented a defense is, the best way to upend that defense is to find its weak spots and attack them with all you've got.
The Seattle defense doesn't have a lot of weak spots; that's been made evident over the years. But its Achilles' heel is that any small breakdown in communication can set it on a bad roll.