RENTON – Finding Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator John Marshall among the coaches at the team’s Renton practice facility isn’t difficult. He’s the one with his hat turned backward, barking instructions and moving around with an energy and vigor that belies his age. Marshall is 62 years old and on the cusp of another birthday in October.
The energy Marshall exudes is infectious and intentional. It’s the same type of unbridled enthusiasm his defense plays with on game days, helping to lead the Seahawks to a No. 6 overall ranking in points allowed at 18.2 per game last season.
And with all 11 starters back this season for the first time in franchise history, Seattle’s defense should again perform at a high level, perhaps setting the tempo on a team traditionally dominated by offense-minded head coach Mike Holmgren.
“The bar is set very high and they know that, and I expect them to play well,” Holmgren said after a recent practice.
The Seahawks have ranked in the top-half of the league in total offense the last five seasons, all playoff runs for Seattle – including garnering a No. 1 ranking in 2005 when Seattle advanced to the Super Bowl.
But this season Seattle’s offense is beset with injuries to receivers Bobby Engram and Deion Branch and offensive lineman Chris Spencer and Sean Locklear. Running backs Shaun Alexander and Mack Strong also are gone, which means the offense may sputter as it works several key new pieces into place.
Marshall knows creating turnovers and giving the offense more opportunities to score will be important. During his 10 years in the league as a defensive coordinator Marshall’s defenses overall have finished in the top half of the league in turnovers caused.
And while serving as the defensive coordinator for the Carolina Panthers, Marshall’s defense ranked fourth in the NFL with 105 takeaways during his three-year tenure.
Marshall sees the issues on offense as more of an opportunity than a concern.
“Our guys last year and this year felt like they needed to lead the way,” Marshall said. “And defense does. They need to lead the way. And even though the offense is an outstanding offense, and obviously now there’s a few things they need to take care of to really get it going, but Mike Holmgren’s offenses score points, and our guys know that and they need to be excited about that.
“But at the same time we understand games are won 3-0 or 9-6 – something like that. And if we get into one of those games we’ve got to be able to do that job.”
Team president and general manager Tim Ruskell also has put his imprint on the defense. Since taking over the reins in 2005, Ruskell has brought in nine defensive starters by draft, free agency or trade.
Ruskell knows from his days in Tampa Bay that while teams need to score points, strong defenses lead to championships. Nine of the past 12 teams that won the Super Bowl have had a top-10 ranked defense.
“I’ve always told (quarterback) Matt (Hasselbeck) that if we score 17 points, it’s not the offense’s fault that we lose,” said defensive co-captain Lofa Tatupu. “And that’s what every defense should have their sights set on. If you have 17 points, that’s enough of an opportunity to get a win.”
Seattle’s defense is relatively small, but overcomes its size with exceptional quickness at most positions. The key to the defense’s success is versatility at linebacker. With Pro Bowlers Tatupu and Julian Peterson, along with emerging talent Leroy Hill, the linebacking core is effective at both rushing the passer and dropping into coverage.
That versatility allows Seattle’s defense to be unpredictable in its blitz packages, keeping offenses off balance.
“If you want to go for a signature, I think our speed has to show up,” Tatupu said. “It has to be evident. We’re a bit undersized, so we have to be fast.”
The linebackers are supported by a disciplined secondary that rarely allows receivers to get behind them for big plays. Both safeties Deon Grant and Brian Russell are veterans who don’t fall for play-action fakes, and also are sure tacklers. Youngster Kelly Jennings has developed into a solid cover corner on one side. And Tacoma native Marcus Trufant has emerged as one of the top cover corners in the league after finishing with a career-high seven interceptions last season, earning his first Pro Bowl trip.
Seattle’s defense allowed only 15 touchdown passes last season, a league low. Seattle also finished tied for fourth in the league in interceptions with 20.
Trufant said he expects to play at that level this season, again contributing to his team’s ball-hawking defense.
“We’ve got to hit people,” Trufant said. “We need to get fumbles and we need to get interceptions and get the ball back to our offense. Any time you can hurry a quarterback and hurry the offense, they get uncomfortable and their timing is thrown off, and that’s going to make our job a whole lot easier.”
“Pressuring the quarterback, pursuing all over the field and using our team speed and making plays sideline to sideline, that’s what we do best.”
If there is a weakness defensively it can be found up front on Seattle’s defensive line. Defensive end Patrick Kerney finished with 14.5 sacks last season, second overall in the league and earned a Pro Bowl invite. First-round pick Lawrence Jackson and Darrell Tapp should provide a steady rush from the other side.
However, the Seahawks lack a powerful run stuffer inside. Seattle finished a respectable 12th overall in rushing yards allowed last season. But Green Bay’s Ryan Grant gashed the defense for 201 yards and three touchdowns in the playoffs, ending Seattle’s season on a sour note.
Second-year player Brandon Mebane and veteran Rocky Bernard will start inside at defensive tackles for the Seahawks. But with Marcus Tubbs released during training camp with an ailing back, Seattle would like to see rookie Red Bryant settle in as a run stuffer up front.
Veteran safety Grant knows having an experienced defense returning can only lead to better results – and ultimately more victories – for Seattle.
“We got what we asked for, and that was to keep us here together,” he said. “(Marcus) Trufant, Lofa (Tatupu) and Leroy (Hill) and all of these other guys are still here, and now we have to go out and capitalize on it and make the best of it.”