The Seahawks teach their corners such a unique style that it makes it hard for veterans like Cary Williams to pick up.
I’m going to throw out a theory, and then I’m going to try to explain and defend my theory. The point isn’t to show that I’m right, but simply to raise an idea and work my way through it.
The theory: The way the Seahawks teach their corners — the technique — is so specific and unique that it is best to avoid bringing in veteran corners and instead stick with home-grown guys.
I thought about this last year when the Seahawks released veteran corner Cary Williams, and I thought about it again when the Seahawks re-signed corner Jeremy Lane to a four-year contract on Wednesday.
What makes the Seahawks’ style unique?
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This is probably the most important point to prove but also the hardest to dissect.
The Seahawks teach their corners a style they call the “step-kick technique.” Here’s how I’ve described it before:
The step-kick technique is pretty much what it sounds like. At the line of scrimmage, Seattle’s corners get in front of their receiver to press. Receivers usually shimmy and shake to create separation at the line — think of Doug Baldwin — but the Seahawks teach their corners to take one step sideways when the ball is snapped. That way, the corner is less tempted to react wrongly to the receivers’ dancing.
That’s the “step.”
The “kick” in the equation comes when the dancing is over. At some point the receiver has to get going, and when he does, the Seahawks kick their foot backward to run with the receiver and keep him in front of them.
Coach Pete Carroll has been teaching it that way for decades, and best I can tell, it is specific to the Seahawks.
At the Super Bowl two years ago, former NFL defensive back Solomon Wilcots, said, “I will say this: That stuff is innovative.” His reasoning: While many teams have taught a bump-and-run technique, Carroll teaches the style with his own twist. Instead of wanting his corners to “trail” receivers in coverage, which is exactly what it sounds like, Carroll wants his corners to stay on top of receivers, eliminating the likelihood of big plays.
“Pete was like, ‘When you get into that, all they’re going to do is throw deep,’” Wilcots said. “Sooner or later, all they need to do is hit two or three of those in a game. But Pete said, ‘We’re going to keep the receivers in front of us. We’re going to play with vision back to the quarterback.’
“If you took 10 cornerbacks and asked them what technique they would prefer to play, unanimously everyone one of them would raise their hand quick to play the way Pete Carroll teaches it.”
It’s not different in grand, sweeping ways, but in subtle ways, which the Seahawks have always argued make all the difference in the world. As veteran corner Cary Williams said when he signed with the Seahawks last offseason, “There’s a lot of intricate things that are different than other places.”
So what’s so difficult about it?
While the Seahawks have always pointed to the small details making all the difference, they’ve also acknowledged that the real trick is mental, not physical.
The word the Seahawks use is patience, and here’s what they mean. When a receiver gets juking and shaking at the line, trying to throw a corner off balance, the Seahawks expect their corners to hold their ground, keep their feet still and only react when the receiver gets going up field.
Have you ever closely watched Richard Sherman? He almost looks lackadaisical at the snap of the ball, like he’s playing a pickup game with friends. As simple as Sherman makes it look, that mental passivity goes against almost every human instinct.
“Well, how about that wide receiver moving 100 miles per hour in front of you? Be patient now,” Seahawks defensive coordinator Kris Richard said once, later adding, “It’s not for the faint of heart.”
I loved talking to rookie corner Tye Smith before the season, because before the Seahawks drafted him, he had never heard of the step-kick technique. He had to shut off every instinct he had to react when a receiver started moving.
“It’s hard because you think it’s going faster than it really is,” Smith said. “You think he’s moving faster than he really is. That’s the hardest part. You have to be patient and understand that if he’s moving all his arms and he hasn’t come forward, you’re still in good position. You have to wait until he declares a side to actually step kick.”
Now, back to the thesis
The amazing thing about the Seahawks’ success at cornerback is that they’ve never drafted a corner higher than the fourth round in six years. So what that tells you is 1) they’re good at evaluating the position in the front office and 2) they’re good at developing players.
Which is why I think it’s hard for veterans to come in here and pick it up. It’s not just the specific nuances the Seahawks teach, but the mental overhaul older players have to make in order to fully buy in to the system. And that is a very hard thing to do.
It was one of the things Williams struggled with. He reverted back to his old tendencies, his old comforts, too often.
That’s also why I think the Seahawks are better off developing guys in house, letting them slowly develop and then turning them loose only after they complete their apprenticeship. Carroll is a defensive back coach at heart, and he once said he wanted to turn USC into “Cornerback U” when he was there. That didn’t exactly happen, but the Seahawks have become something like the pro version of that.
Think about all the successful corners the Seahawks have had over the last three or four years: Sherman, Walter Thurmond, Brandon Browner, Jeremy Lane, Byron Maxwell.
All but Browner was drafted by the Seahawks, and even he was somewhat homegrown. He came to the Seahawks as a free agent from the Canadian Football League and was moldable in ways that high-priced or experienced NFL free agents might not be. And many of those guys were allowed to develop slowly in the shadows, much like Tye Smith did last year.
The Seahawks just signed Lane to a four-year contract, and if he stays healthy, the deal will likely end up looking like a bargain. He can play both outside corner and in the slot, giving the Seahawks flexibility with their other corners, and he has been drilled in the system for years.
When the Seahawks released Williams last season after it was clear it wasn’t working out, I asked Carroll if they were wary of veteran corners because of the specific technique they teach. His response, which I thought was telling for its lack of denial: “Possibly.”
I don’t think this is a black-and-white issue. Some veteran guys can come here and pick it up. Some can’t. Some players the Seahawks draft go on to be big contributors at corner. Some don’t.
But if nothing else, it’s an interesting idea to chew on, and it hints at the complexity the Seahawks demand from their corners.