Rookie defensive backs now ready for prime time

No more baby steps. It’s time for Seattle Seahawks’ rookie defensive backs to spread their wings.

Cornerback Walter Thurmond and safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor all have played during critical moments this season, most notably Thomas as the starting free safety for Seattle.

And they’ve learned from their mistakes on the way.

“I think a classic example is Kam Chancellor,” Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley said. “The first game we played New Orleans they ran a basic route, and they completed it for a first down in a critical third-down situation. This time, they threw the same route and he makes the play on it and breaks it up.

“So just that growth that those guys are getting by getting playing time, they’re really doing a good job.”

Heading into their first NFL postseason, the rookie moniker no longer applies.

“We’ve all had a lot of playing time and experience, and are pretty familiar with the game,” Thurmond said. “Guys have told us that once you keep going onto the playoffs the game gets a little bit faster, but I think that’s something we can adjust to on the fly.

“I just feel like we’re really comfortable and confident with the schemes out there we’re asked to play.”

All three are part of the “bandit” package Seattle used so successfully against Chicago in October, helping produce six sacks and a safety. Seattle’s defensive backs finished with 31/2 sacks that day, including two by veteran Lawyer Milloy.

Chicago quarterback Jay Cutler finished 3-of-8 for 39 yards and was sacked four times when Seattle used its bandit package.

Seattle has used the package mostly on third down in passing situations. The defensive scheme consists of seven defensive backs, three linemen and a linebacker, usually Lofa Tatupu.

The line usually features Brandon Mebane at nose tackle, with Chris Clemons and Raheem Brock playing at ends. Milloy steps up to play linebacker, allowing Chancellor to come in to play strong safety. Thomas stays at free safety and Marcus Trufant and Kelly Jennings serve as the cornerbacks. And reserve defensive backs Jordan Babineaux and Thurmond cover the slot receivers.

The package allows Seattle to better disguise where it will bring pressure, creating confusion and forcing mistakes.

The defense helped keep Chicago to 0-for-12 on third down in the first contest. And Seattle held Arizona to 2-of-12 on third down the following week.

Bradley said he doesn’t know how much they will use the scheme against the Bears on Sunday.

“A lot of it is based on the team that we’re facing,” he said. “Last week, we felt like with (Drew) Brees, he had so many options and things like that, we felt like we could maybe get some edge pressure with our guys. So every week’s based on what we’re seeing off them so I’m sure there’ll be a mixture of both.”

Cutler said his team will be better prepared for Seattle’s blitzing scheme this time. The Bears have given up 56 sacks, worst in the league. But Chicago’s offensive line has stabilized after third-year pro Chris Williams moved from left tackle to left guard, and right guard Roberto Garza returned after minor knee surgery.

The Bears also have created more balance by running the ball more, averaging 106 yards a game on the ground since the earlier game.

“At that point in the season, we were still kind of feeling out the offense,” Cutler said. “The offensive line was still feeling out stuff. I didn’t really have a good feel for everything. Since then, I think we’ve grown up, we’ve matured in the offense and we’ve gotten better.”

Schemes aside, Bradley said his defense needs to play fundamentally sound against Cutler and Chicago’s speedy, talented receiving group.

“We’re going to have to play tight coverage on them,” Bradley said. “I think when you have a lot of zones available – openings in the zones – Cutler will make you pay for it. And with those guys with speed, it’s so important to get pressure, even with our front four, so those openings aren’t there very long.”