There are certain times when preseason games actually are more meaningful than they usually seem. In the case of the Seattle Seahawks, their most recent revelatory moment came in a 40-10 ravaging of the Denver Broncos on Aug. 17. As much as people celebrate offensive stars such as Russell Wilson and Marshawn Lynch, it was the Seahawks' defenders who stood out that game. They were instrumental in the beatdown Seattle delivered that night, and they've got plenty more to offer future opponents.
The Seahawks' starters forced two turnovers, stifled the Broncos' running game, harassed quarterback Peyton Manning and did everything to back up ESPN.com's assessment of their unit. No team produced more talents in this year's rankings of the top 100 defensive players than the eight Seattle totaled. What's even scarier is that most of those players haven't even reached their primes. We could be looking at a unit that someday rivals the best to ever line up in the NFL.
The headliner of the group is All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, who came in at No. 8 in our #NFLrank list of defensive players. He didn't lack for company, either. Every starter in the Seahawks' secondary ranked among the top 50 (free safety Earl Thomas, cornerback Brandon Browner and strong safety Kam Chancellor), and four other teammates rated among the best 100 (cornerback Antoine Winfield, linebacker Bobby Wagner and defensive ends Cliff Avril and Chris Clemons). It's almost unfair to think the Seahawks are sitting on that much talent.
What this means is that Seattle finally is getting its just due for how complete this team really is. Most people who follow the NFL knew the Seahawks were talented and blessed with a young, gifted quarterback in Wilson. Sherman, however, was the primary supplier of their star power on defense. As productive as he was in a breakout season -- when he had 64 tackles, eight interceptions and three forced fumbles -- he made nearly as much noise with his nonstop bluster.
Sherman made people listen and look at what was happening with the defense that Pete Carroll was assembling. It was a unit that reflected the head coach's defensive vision: big, athletic players covering the field and pummeling anybody that crossed their paths. The growing belief around the league was that larger defensive backs were going the way of Ethernet cables -- they were only useful in limited situations. Carroll built the foundation of his secondary on the belief that a collection of supersized ball hawks can still be a responsible method of defending in the NFL.
Sherman is listed at 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds. Browner goes 6-foot-4 and 221 pounds, while Chancellor is 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds. Thomas, who happens to be the best safety in the league these days, is actually the runt of the group. At 5-foot-10 and 202 pounds, he's barely visible in this huddle.
The secondary sets the tone for a defense that is all about pounding people up front. Clemons, Avril and second-year sensation Bruce Irvin are all whippet-quick pass-rushers who can make life hell for any opposing quarterbacks. Wagner is just as scary at linebacker. With 140 tackles, three interceptions and two sacks in 2012, he easily could've won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year honors if Carolina's Luke Kuechly hadn't been so dominant.
Seattle's defense was so good that it ranked in the top 10 in every major statistical category, including first in points allowed (15.3). Even though it's only preseason, the unit has continued to showcase its sturdiness. The first-string defense allowed only one touchdown in the first three preseason contests and only 13 points total. As Lynch said after the Broncos game, "These guys aren't playing around when they get out there."
It would be wise for the rest of the league to pay attention to that comment. For years, the argument about which team has the best defense has been one reserved for the usual suspects. You had the Baltimore Ravens, the Pittsburgh Steelers, the New York Jets (when coach Rex Ryan really was ramping up his bravado) and more recently the San Francisco 49ers. Nobody could see the Seahawks pushing their way to the front of this conversation so quickly.
One reason for that is the surprising lack of recognition many of these players received before last season. Sherman and Chancellor were both fifth-round picks. Browner was an undrafted free agent who spent four years in Canada before Carroll brought him back to the states. Wagner was a second-round pick, but it's unlikely many people followed his career at Utah State, the only school that offered him a scholarship.
That lack of respect defines the Seattle defense more than first-round picks such as Irvin and Thomas do. It shows up in the intensity of the Seahawks' vicious hits, as well as the satisfaction they get in taking the ball away from opponents. Some of these players have waited years to show the NFL what they had to offer. In Seattle, they found countless kindred spirits who were all too eager to join that party.
The people in Seattle will tell you they saw this coming long before the Seahawks' impressive season in 2012. Now the rest of the world has been put on notice as well. What Manning and his pals saw in that preseason game was a defense that seems to take every contest personally. Even with the respect it's constantly receiving from a growing fan club, that attitude will keep the Seattle defense among the league's best for a long time to come.