BY Doug Farrar 11:25PM 01/02/2011

Seahawks win ugly in defensive fashion

The Seahawks won the West with elevated defense against a short-stack offense.

Seahawks defensive end Raheem Brock deflects a pass from Rams quarterback Sam Bradford (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

Seahawks general manager John Schneider stood in the hallway that led from the Qwest Field turf to his team’s locker room, high-fiving and hugging every player that came by. When head coach Pete Carroll hit that hallway, the two men shared a hug and a good, long shout. Perhaps it was an exhalation after a season featuring an exhausting string of roster moves, or maybe it was the last meaningful moment the architects of this unlikely season will have before the rest of the National Football League comes crashing down upon them with the force of a Chris Clemons late hit.

Make no mistake – the NFL sees these Seahawks as the black eye and black sheep of its brand; the first team in league history to win a division with a losing record, and the first in a non-strike season to make the playoffs. But what the Seahawks made very clear after the 16-6 win over the St. Louis Rams that gave them the NFC West at 7-9 is that they don’t care at all what the league thinks. For these Seahawks, especially the ones who went through the dog days of the Tim Ruskell/Jim Mora era, today was the absolute culmination of the goal that Carroll put forth when he took over the team last January – win the division on a no-matter-what basis.

“Was that fun or what?” Carroll asked the media after the game. “We feel very fortunate to be in this situation tonight, to the work of this entire season that it took to get here and be there with the opportunity to win the division. The thing that (makes me) so proud of this team is that they hung together through a lot of messy games during the course of this season when we weren’t playing good football. It really came together on this championship night.”

Charlie WHitehurst and Pete Carroll leave the field after the Seahawks' 16-6 win over the St. Louis Rams (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

Primarily, it came together on defense. While the headline story was the efforts of quarterback Charlie Whitehurst and the game plan set around him, the resounding theme of the most important Seahawks win since the Holmgren era was that a defense was allowed to do what it could do best.

Rams quarterback Sam Bradford came into this game with the NFL’s second-lowest average pass length on completions (4.83 yards – only Dallas’ Jon Kitna is lower), indicating that the Rams have been playing it close to the vest with their passing game all season long. After the game, several Seahawks defenders made one thing very clear – what they got from Bradford and the Rams’ offense was exactly what they expected.

The system that Rams offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has directed Bradford to run through the season has made him one of the most efficient and impressive first-year quarterbacks in recent memory, but it also killed him in this game. The Seahawks had seen this act before, and they knew what to do about it. Wait for the hot reads and bubble screens, sit on everything underneath, and attack the man with the ball the moment he gets it.

“There were a couple of times when I threw the keys or bubbles (bubble screens) when they were putting eight in the box,” said Bradford. “A couple of times, we let it roll with eight in the box. For the most part, the box was loaded all day, and they were trying to take away our running game. I think that’s one reason we didn’t see a lot of runs today.”

Another reason was that the Seahawks countered what was expected to be a dominant running game from Steven Jackson by eliminating the one schematic issue that has bedeviled them whenever Kentwan Balmer has been the run-stopping five-tech end in specific defensive fronts. Balmer frequently got washed out on running plays against several different opponents, so Carroll and defensive coordinator Gus Bradley went with a different set of ideas.

(Note: If you’re unfamiliar with numeric assignments along defensive fronts, here’s a great primer.)

When they weren’t employing five-man fronts that the Rams probably didn’t expect, they went with more traditional four-man fronts in which tackles Colin Cole and Brandon Mebane played more set positions, and the end duo of Raheem Brock and Chris Clemons held the edges down. Clemons, who frequently played out in a wider nine-tech look, led a pass rush that had Bradford playing on an uncomfortable point. Not only did the Seahawks sack Bradford three times and pressure him most of the day, they also tipped three passes, which definitely surprised the rookie.

“I think early in the game, when they weren’t going to get to me, they just stopped and tried to time my throws and jumped to get their hands on some balls,” Bradford said. “It was really frustrating when things like that happened, but I’ve got to find a way to find throwing lanes and make sure that doesn’t happen.”

Seahawks defenders saw precisely what they expected, starting with fellow rookie Earl Thomas. “Me playing free safety, I started cheating down, just helping out on the short stuff. Our defensive line was getting a lot of pressure on them; that’s probably why they weren’t taking a lot of shots. And the shots they did take were a ‘long fall ball.’ It really helped me out when I realized that they weren’t taking any shots.”

Lawyer Milloy, Thomas’ mentor and a man who has seen the elephant in every possible shape and size, talked about how that conservatism actually presented opportunities for his defense. “We knew from the first time we played them – if you take away two or three screen plays and one long run, we came out of that game feeling confident, even though it was a loss. We know that even though (Bradford) has had some successes, being a rookie quarterback, teams understand how they’re going to attack him. He’s dropped down in efficiency also. We know who he wanted to go to on third down, and we took that away.”

They certainly did – the Rams gained just one first down on the ground and converted just two of 14 third-down opportunities. And the screen passes, such a problem the last time these teams faced off, were a negligible issue. Jackson caught four passes on six targets for 39 yards, and he led all St. Louis receivers.

“Remember when Ali rope-a-doped them? It’s a little bit of that rope-a-dope,” Carroll said of the defensive strategy. “We’ve seen our guys play like that. Six points against San Francisco right at the start of the season, we knew right from the beginning that we had a chance. We didn’t find it as much as we needed to (in previous games), but tonight when we needed it most, it was there.”

By dint of their division title, the Seahawks will host the New Orleans Saints next Saturday at 1:30 p.m. in the wild-card round. Carroll’s defense could afford to play rope-a-dope against the Rams’ dink-and-dunk, but the Saints present an entirely different challenge. The only advantages Seattle may have is that they faced the defending Super Bowl champs in Week 12 at the Superdome, played them reasonably tight, and hope that the 12th Man is worth two touchdowns this time.

Seahawks safety Earl Thomas trips up Rams receiver Danny Amendola on a punt return (Drew McKenzie/Sportspress Northwest)

Carroll understands the challenge – winning the division was the goal, and more than that is the dream. Playing under defenses against the Saints, especially as effectively as their offense has been running of late, is the proverbial recipe for disaster. The Seahawks will have to be more multiple in their defensive concepts than they have been all season.

“Sean (Payton) is an incredible coach and all that. But they’re coming here. It’s a short week, and they have to fly across the country and figure all that stuff out. They have a lot of stuff to get organized. We’re going to have a really cool week of preparation, and a very exciting week for us. The thing that’s most important for us right now is to be okay about where we are, and not think this is something we can’t deal with.”

Just happy to be here? Not if you ask these guys. The Seahawks will once again be undermanned underdogs, but they don’t seem to mind the view from the basement.