RENTON — Pete Carroll first made his name coaching defensive backs, specifically assembling a secondary with the Minnesota Vikings that led the NFL in fewest passing yards allowed two straight years in the 1980s.
He one-upped that once he became the head coach of the Seahawks in 2010, constructing one of the most famous secondaries in NFL history, the Legion of Boom.
Which is why it might surprise some that Carroll says his overall defensive philosophy starts from the front.
“It’s always been to stop the run first,’’ Carroll said recently. “Always. That’s where we begin. … If people can run the football, it’s too easy. They don’t get in situations where they jeopardize the ball and all that and clock and all those things.’’
It’s a philosophy that’s at the heart of how the Seahawks have played their defense this season in a way that is bucking current NFL conventional wisdom in jumping out to a 2-0 start.
With offenses in recent seasons passing more than ever, defenses have responded by playing more alignments with five and six defensive backs, or what are commonly called nickel and dime defenses.
But Seattle this year is using its base defense — meaning, four defensive linemen, three linebackers and four defensive backs — most of the time.
Through two games, Seattle’s three nickel or dime defensive backs — Jamar Taylor, Ugo Amadi and Akeem King — have combined to play 43 of a possible 132 snaps, or 31% (with King twice having been used in a dime look).
The other 69% of the snaps have featured all three starting linebackers — middle linebacker Bobby Wagner (who has played all 132 snaps), weakside linebacker K.J. Wright (122) and strongside linebacker Mychal Kendricks (106).
Last year, teams around the NFL were in a base defense just 25% of the time. Seattle pretty much followed suit, using its base defense 34% of the time and in a nickel or dime defense 63% (stats from FootballOutsiders.com).
“It’s been fun going against the trends, so to say,’’ said Wright.
Carroll, though, isn’t really trying to be contrarian. Instead, it’s simply about getting the best 11 defensive players on the field as often as possible.
Seattle was left with an uncertain nickel situation in the spring when last year’s starter, Justin Coleman, who played 67.81% of snaps a year ago, signed with Detroit as a free agent. Seattle drafted Amadi with an eye toward being a nickel and also signed Taylor and re-signed King.
But none took the job and ran away with it in training camp, with the Seahawks releasing Taylor at the cutdown to 53 before bringing him back last week.
At almost the same time Seattle lost Coleman, the Seahawks re-signed both Wright and Kendricks, with Carroll immediately saying he hoped to play the two together as often as possible in 2019. In 2018, Kendricks was signed to help replace Wright when Wright suffered a knee injury, each playing the weakside-linebacker position.
But with each returning — and each carrying salary-cap hits that are among the top 11 on the team — the Seahawks moved Kendricks to strongside linebacker to assure they all get on the field. Leaving all three linebackers on the field, Carroll says, makes Seattle that much harder to run against.
That was something that was one of Seattle’s biggest weaknesses last season as the Seahawks allowed 4.9 yards per rushing attempt, 30th in the NFL. Through two games this year, Seattle is allowing just 3.8 yards per rush, 10th in the NFL.
“I think it’s a big advantage that you’ve got big guys out there,” Wright said. “What teams try to do is they make you go small and then run the ball on us.”
With all three linebackers usually on the field, Wright says flatly that “you shouldn’t be able to run against us.”
The caveat is that it only works if the linebackers can hold their own in pass coverage. Essentially, Kendricks is often just fulfilling the duties the nickel back would, and the Seahawks are basically deciding that Kendricks is good enough in pass coverage to pull it off.
Kendricks was called for a defensive pass-interference penalty last week — that Carroll challenged unsuccessfully and still feels wasn’t a correct call — that set up a touchdown, and also got beat on a flea-flicker for a touchdown in week one against the Bengals.
But two wins, and last week against the Steelers allowing just 261 total yards and 187 passing, indicates to Carroll that it’s working. And the Seahawks say that things can always change, particularly depending on that week’s matchup.
But for now, Carroll likes what he sees.
“We like these guys on the field,’’ Carroll said. “Mychal Kendricks is such a good guy in space coming off the edge. He’s effective, a good tackler in open field, good coverage guy to add in with Bobby and K.J. We feel comfortable with those guys playing, and we can do a lot of stuff with them.”