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Thursday, October 14, 2004
Updated: August 1, 6:02 PM ET
Simple schemes working for 'Hawks

By Michael Smith
ESPN.com

Up until it self-destructed in about the time it takes per day to perfect one's abdominal muscles, Seattle's defense was simply the best. Better than all the rest. Better than anyone … .

OK, enough. Seriously, this time last week Seattle's D was ranked first in total defense and scoring defense, having allowed a meager 13 points in three games, including the first shutout of the 49ers in a league-record 420 contests.

Then came the final eight minutes and change against St. Louis, against whom things quickly can change. As a result of the Rams' 209-yard, 23-point blitz in the final quarter and overtime, Seattle brings a loss and only the league's sixth-rated defense into the marquee matchup of Week 6 against the Patriots at Gillette Stadium.

Honestly, I think we can be as good as we were in the first 15 quarters. I really do. We did self-destruct. There's no question about that. But I have confidence. With youth comes resiliency, I think. As long as they're honest about what happened we'll bounce back, and we're kind of a capable group over
there.
Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren

But hold off on issuing an S.O.S. (Same Ol' Seahawks). Seattle's defense isn't as dominant as it looked against New Orleans, Tampa Bay, San Francisco, and for 51 minutes of the Rams game; truth is, some within the league still are skeptical of the personnel. But nor is the defense as weak as it looked when we last left it. It's in the middle, probably closer to the former, which means it's still legit, as a Ray Rhodes defense usually is.

"They gave up a couple of big plays," said Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who maybe knows a thing or 2,000 about defense. "We've been there before. We've seen a 14-point lead go in just a few plays or a very short amount of time. That's what the Rams are. We all know they can score in a hurry. We saw that first-hand ourselves (in Super Bowl XXXVI)."

The Seahawks "were in control of the game, really, for 55, 56 minutes," Belichick said. "That's the way it can go against the Rams. (Seattle is) a strong team. They've been in control every week."

The secret to Seattle's success on defense is that there are none. In contrast to the defense that the Seahawks' offense will attempt to solve Sunday, which makes stops by pulling out all the stops, especially on third down, the 'Hawks' defense is pretty vanilla. And there isn't anything wrong with good ol' homemade vanilla.

Rhodes' recipe is to give you a lot of a little. These days, when complexity rules, that qualifies him as different. But every year, Rhodes, who declines most interview requests, gets the same results. He's had a top 10 defense in five of seven seasons as a coordinator. Last year, his first in Seattle, he helped the Seahawks improve from 28th in 2002 to 19th.

The main ingredient in the formula is simplicity. The Seahawks use two major personnel groups, the 4-3 and the "dime" (six defensive backs), when they bring in Bobby Taylor and Michael Boulware.

The Seahawks' scheme can be broken down this way: On first and second down, they play a lot of soft zone, mostly three deep, four across, mixed in with a few zone blitzes. They'll play a little man on third and short.

That's basically it. Pretty basic, huh?

"Guys can go out there and let their natural ability take over," said Taylor, a free agent import this offseason who played under Rhodes for three years in Philly. "There are defenses where every time an offensive player moves there's a check to be made. There's a lot less thinking here. Ray's mentality is not to let what the offensive coordinator does dictate what he calls."

That's the best approach against an offense such as the Patriots', which gives you different flavors each week. Against Indianapolis, New England ran something like 25 snaps out of a new variation of its empty set (no backs, two tight ends, three wide receivers). Arizona spent a lot of practice time preparing for the empty look, and saw the formation twice the following week.

So rather than outwit Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, Rhodes will rely on his guys to outperform the Patriots.

"We have some different twists here and there, but for the most part, it's not rocket science," Taylor said. "He stresses that it's not about the scheme or the X's and O's, it's about the guys who are playing, us getting after the guys in front of us. If we have more guys winning (individual battles) than they do, we'll continue to be successful."

So far, so pretty darn good. Seattle has 13 takeaways and is tied for the league lead with eight picks, three by cornerback Ken Lucas, who plays opposite rising star Marcus Trufant. The Seahawks intercept more passes per attempt than anyone, and they still have the best scoring defense.

Grant Wistrom
DE Grant Wistrom has 2½ sacks and three pass deflections.
The Seahawks' pouncing defense provides the perfect complement to its potent offense, which often stakes Seattle to a lead. With the exception of last week's finish, the defense seems to be most effective when the opposition is forced to pass. The Seahawks are ranked fourth overall against the run, and opponents were 0 for their first 20 third and 7-plus situations before the Rams converted their last four third and longs. The pressure ends Grant Wistrom and Chike Okeafor are able to apply allows Seattle to blitz (rush more than the standard four) selectively.

Seattle "makes you drive it down the field on them, makes you convert a lot of plays," Belichick said. "If you're not careful, they knock you out of there, and that's the end of the drive."

Offensively, the Patriots this week are preaching patience and starting strong -- the Seahawks haven't allowed a point in the first quarter this season and only three in the third. The Patriots will be content to take what's there against Seattle's zones and when the opportunity presents itself, they'll try to take what they want, confident that they'll have an easier time moving the ball against Seattle than they did against Miami last week, or Buffalo the week before, even if they're again thin at receiver (Troy Brown is "questionable," Deion Branch "doubtful").

Softball question: Which is the real Seattle defense? The stingy one-time league leader or the one that looked soft in losing a 17-point lead at home?

"Honestly, I think we can be as good as we were in the first 15 quarters. I really do," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said. "We did self-destruct. There's no question about that. But I have confidence. With youth comes resiliency, I think. As long as they're honest about what happened we'll bounce back, and we're kind of a capable group over there."

Said Trufant, "We have to prove in this game, to ourselves and everybody else, that we can bounce back."

Michael Smith is a senior writer for ESPN.com.