With seven new starters to begin the season, the Seattle Seahawks knew their defense would have a very different appearance in 2005. In casting aside players who had not lived up to expectations (Anthony Simmons, Orlando Huff, Terreal Bierria), or losing monetary battles to other teams who wanted the services of premier players (Ken Lucas to Carolina, Chike Okeafor to Arizona), the defense was going to change radically by default. Seattle would set out to improve a squad which finished 26th in the NFL in total defense in 2004.
Their defensive ranking through twelve games in 2005?
20th in yards allowed, and 7th in points per game.
Some vital overall numbers speak to this improvement…namely, the 10-2 record the Seahawks currently sport. There is also the #1 seed in the conference, which Seattle now defends, a 5-0 division record, a chance for an NFC West sweep against the 49ers this Sunday, and a 9-1 conference record. Their current eight-game winning streak in the face of several injuries exemplifies the character and toughness demanded by new team president Tim Ruskell, and required in this age of parity.
In the last week, this “bend-but-don’t-break” defense has suffered two body blows. Starting LCB Andre Dyson suffered a high ankle sprain in Seattle’s 42-0 Monday Night Beatdown of the Philadelphia Eagles, and is out for at least the rest of the regular season. His ostensible replacement, nickel man Kelly Herndon, injured his left knee on November 27 against the New York Giants and is expected out for a couple more weeks.
Then, the team announced on Friday that SLB Jamie Sharper, who had been suffering from a staph infection in his right knee, would be placed on injured reserve, ending his season in total. Sharper, who hadn’t missed a game in his eight years in the NFL before signing with Seattle in 2005, hadn’t played since the Seahawks’ eighth game. He has been most ably replaced by Clemson rookie Leroy Hill, the 2004 ACC Defensive Player of the Year and third-round draft pick who has received almost no national recognition, despite the fact that he has more tackles (44 to 36) and as many sacks (7) as San Diego Super-Rookie Shawne Merriman in the same number of games (11).
There’s no question that Hill can stand up and produce in Sharper’s stead, though the Seahawks will miss Sharper’s veteran leadership and run-stopping ability. Question: How many hits can a team take to its secondary and still come close to championship caliber? Dyson, who was acquired to fill Ken Lucas’ shoes, is no longer a factor. Herndon is out for now, and has shown inconsistent coverage ability when he is able to play.
The Dyson/Herndon starting equation will find its replacement in Jordan Babineaux, a second-year DB from Southern Arkansas. Jimmy Williams, a fifth-year corner acquired by the Seahawks in September, will see action in nickel packages. The rotation will be rounded out for the time being by Michael Harden, who impressed in NFL Europe this spring.
Can the Seahawks take this magic season to its ideal conclusion with Marcus Trufant and a bunch of backups? Can you see Jimmy Williams and Jordan Babineaux on the field, in the secondary, for any length of time in the Super Bowl?
The New England Patriots, winners of three of the last four Super Bowls and the modern-day poster children for roster depth, were hit with an equivalent secondary decimation in 2004, and rode a bunch of street free agents, backups and no-names to the Lombardi Trophy. I asked Jon Scott, Managing Editor of PatriotsInsider.com, to fill in the blanks and explain how a team can win it all with a depleted back line.
“(The injuries at cornerback were) by far the biggest story of 2004,” Scott said. “Gone for the year were Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, the Patriots’ starting cornerbacks from years past, and their starting cornerbacks in the Super Bowl the previous season.”
Law missed New England’s last nine regular season games after suffering a foot injury against the Pittsburgh Steelers on October 31. Poole struggled through the first half of 2004 with a knee injury, and the Pats put him on injured reserve in December. Law’s IR designation came in January of 2005. Scott ran down the ramifications of those injuries:
“Law’s loss was big. It meant that the number one defender on the field was gone, and every game from there on out became that much tougher to slow down opponent’s passing attacks. Law’s replacement was a combination of backs, but the primary cover duties fell to young Asante Samuel.
“Samuel held his own, but ended up getting knocked out when he had a major collision while covering St. Louis tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, who outweighs him by over 100 pounds. Samuel was on and off for the next few weeks, and this is when LSU Rookie Randall Gay was called upon.
“Gay played well, assuming the starting RCB duties from that point on. Faced with the loss of Law, the absence of Poole, and Samuel’s injury, the Patriots began to sign street free agents. They also put Troy Brown, their no. 3 receiver, in to cover slot receivers in dime and nickel defenses.
”The combination of free agents (Hank Poteat, Earthwind Moreland, Je’Rod Cherry) proved to be enough.”
Enough, indeed. The Patriots finished their 2004 regular season with a 14-2 record, but tougher tests were to come for this makeshift secondary. To reclaim their place at the top of the league, New England would have to face a Murderer’s Row of offenses – in order, Pittsburgh’s ruthlessly efficient run-first attack (captained by rookie wonder Ben Roethlisberger), Indianapolis’ Wild Midwest Shoot-‘Em-Up Aerial Show, and the Philadelphia Eagles’ multi-headed, super-creative West Coast Offense (with a twist of T.O.)
Scott outlined the miraculous nature of the secondary’s postseason work:
“That they beat the Colts with that rag-tag crew - and more impressively, shut them down 20-3 - is pretty amazing. A great deal of credit should go to safety Rodney Harrison. It's obvious they're having real trouble this season because he's not there (Harrison was placed on IR in late September after tearing all three ligaments in his knee). They did it last year without Ty Law and Tyrone Poole, this year they should have been better, but Harrison, I think, is the straw that breaks the camel's back.”
Take Super Bowl XXXIX as an example of Harrison’s importance. The Eagles were making a late comeback, but Harrison managed the patchwork team well enough to hold the unit together, coming up with two interceptions in New England's 24-21 .
New England linebacker Rosevelt Colvin told the Boston Globe in September of 2005 that the coaching staff's approach to replacing injured players has been the difference in prior years. ''It helps out when we have guys go down, that coaches continue to coach the guys that are there," Colvin said. ''So it gives the guys that are here a sense of support and gives the guys that are out there a sense that if (the coaches) can trust those guys then we should be able to trust those guys as players.
''If you're out there on the field you're expected to perform at a high level," Colvin said. ''You've got 10 other guys depending on you. So if we can get all 11 players on the field to perform that defensive call, it doesn't matter (who’s) out there or not.
Harrison’s value to New England, and their violent plummet in his absence (they currently rank 31st in the NFL in pass defense – only the San Francisco 49ers are worse), speaks once again to the importance of depth at every position, and the idea that it matters who is injured as much as how many. For the Seahawks in 2005, perhaps the most indispensable second-tier cog has been free safety Marquand Manuel, who replaced Ken Hamlin after Hamlin’s well-documented injuries outside a Seattle nightclub on October 17th. Manuel has combined with SS Michael Boulware in a tight twosome where the roles are defined – Manuel brings the hits (just ask Jeremy Shockey!) and Boulware continues to make the plays.
As with so many aspects of success in the modern NFL, the Patriots have provided a template for the most trying circumstances, even if they themselves cannot follow such examples when stretched to breaking.
The Seahawks still have some give before their own defensive collapse is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the knowledge that such rewards can still be had despite a secondary pieced together under less-than optimal circumstances is half the battle.
Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.