In their quest for the perfect nickname, Seattle Seahawks defensive backfield players cycled through several suggestions until they settled on the right one.
The Legion of Boom.
“They play that ‘Here Comes the Boom’ song in the stadium and we always act like it’s talking to us,” cornerback Richard Sherman said.
Seattle boasts one of best young secondaries in the league, with safeties Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, and cornerback Brandon Browner all making the trip to Hawaii for the Pro Bowl after the 2011 season.
Seattle finished No. 9 in total defense last season, the first time since 1997 the Seahawks finished in the top 10.
While Seattle’s defensive front seven anchors the unit with its stout play against the run, the Legion of Boom creates turnovers, and plays with a ferocity befitting the name.
“We all got that boom,” safety Kam Chancellor said. “Whether it’s getting interceptions, talking trash, being a ballhawk or just knocking somebody out – it’s everything.”
In his return to the NFL, Seattle coach Pete Carroll focused on developing a defense with an emphasis on speed, ball anticipation and size. That’s particularly evident in the secondary, where Seattle has the biggest cornerback tandem in NFL history – the 6-foot-4 Browner and 6-3 cornerback Richard Sherman.
The lanky corners brought back the bump-and-run technique made famous decades ago by such physical cornerback tandems as Pittsburgh’s Mel Blount and J.T. Thomas, Oakland’s Mike Haynes and Lester Hayes, and Kansas City’s Dale Carter and James Hasty.
“We’re absolutely paying homage to those old-school defensive backs,” Seahawks secondary coach Kris Richard said. “Yeah, I see these guys as throwbacks – committed to press, committed to the techniques and leverage wins. And essentially just doing their best to get up there every single snap that they can to challenge themselves.”
One of Carroll’s mottos is: “It’s all about the ball.” That means taking care of it on offense and taking it away on defense.
Seattle’s defense forced 31 turnovers in 2011, fifth in the league. Twenty-two of those were interceptions, No. 4 in the NFL.
The most impressive parts of this defensive backfield are its youth – the oldest player is Browner at 28 – and that the quartet enters only its second full season of playing together.
“It’s unbelievable,” Sherman said. “It’s one of those things where you feel like it’s something special back there. You feel like you’re with a group that you’ve never been with – that’s not close to anything. It’s more of the chemistry and the feel for one another.”
A year ago, Browner was a Canadian Football League standout taking one last shot at making an NFL team.
Flash forward to this August. Browner, after four years of plying his trade north of the border, is looking to improve on his first season in the NFL.
The transition was not smooth, at least not at first. He led the league in defensive penalties with 19 but learned how to play within the rules in the second half of the season.
He ended up leading the team in interceptions with six, and he returned two for touchdowns. The long-limbed Browner also led the league in pass deflections with 23.
“Out here on the grass always came natural to me,” Browner said. “But it’s always been harder for me as far as pass concepts, things like that. I’m a little better than I was last year. So I pretty much tightened up on the film room, picking up tendencies and things like that.”
Browner’s proclivity for snagging interceptions isn’t surprising. He played safety and receiver in high school, but Oregon State decided to move him to cornerback. And he agreed – grudgingly.
“I was kind of upset,” Browner said. “I thought I was signing with them to be a receiver. But they made the best move for me.”
Browner’s coverage ability was something Carroll coveted during his time at USC. Carroll tried to recruit Browner while coach of the Trojans but missed out.
“Not only does he have this length, but he’s got savvy that makes him special,” Carroll said. “He knows how to play the spot. He understands all of what is going on, he anticipates and sees things kind of before they happen, and that’s what gives him a chance to be special if he can just hold up physically.”
What makes Browner stand out is the way he plays at the line of scrimmage, often keeping receivers from getting out into their routes.
“I just play my game,” Browner said when told he plays like some of the physical corners of the past. “But it’s a compliment when they do tell me things like that. And I know that’s my skill; being aggressive and putting my hands on these guys. There’s not too many guys that do that across the league, so I like to be known as one of the guys that do that.”
SHERM THE WORM
Next man up.
That’s what Sherman said to himself, when he stumbled into a starting job six games into his rookie season.
Sherman was pressed into the starting left cornerback job when Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond landed on the season-ending injured reserve list in 2011.
But the Stanford University product was not overwhelmed. He finished his first season with four interceptions and 55 tackles in 10 starts.
Sherman said the adjustment from college to the NFL wasn’t that hard.
“It wasn’t difficult at all because it’s about football IQ,” he said. “And I feel like I have a very high football IQ. It makes the game easier, and it makes the transition to defense easier.
“There’s probably around 10 defenses out there that you can run, and once you got them all, you got them. And then you can just start playing and making the adjustments. You know how they fit with certain pass concepts, and that makes the game a lot easier.”
Sherman’s teammates call him “the worm” because of the smooth, slithery way he maneuvers around the field.
Like Browner was in high school, Sherman was a receiver for the Cardinal, so he has good ball skills and instincts for how receivers are trying to set him up to create separation.
Sherman’s teammates chipped in to pay for his trip to Hawaii to go watch them perform in the Pro Bowl. Now, he wants to make it there on his own.
“I appreciated them so much for that because it’s a group effort. It’s all a teamwork thing,” he said. “It’s all guys out there doing their job that makes the whole group look great. Even the Pro Bowl players, if you don’t have the other seven or eight guys out there who aren’t Pro Bowlers doing their job, then you won’t look as great. So they understood that, and I appreciate them. Those are my boys.”
KAM THE PUNISHER
One of the reasons the Seahawks decided not to bring back Tacoma native Lawyer Milloy in 2011 was Chancellor. The coaches thought the third-year player of out Virginia Tech was up to the task of replacing the veteran safety.
Chancellor proved them right, finishing second on the team in tackles with 94 and second in interceptions with four, earning a trip to the Pro Bowl in his first season as a starter.
Chancellor said the key for him was getting up to speed in the film room so he could play fast on the field.
“From the beginning, everything was kind of complicated,” he said. “The play-calling and just looking at the offense and not really knowing what they were going to do before the snap of the ball.
“But that’s kind of slowed down for me, and I can kind of see what’s going to happen before the snap of the ball most of the time from studying film, when I see certain alignments and certain formations.”
At 6-3 and 232 pounds, Chancellor hits like a linebacker but has the speed and agility to cover like a safety. He is Seattle’s yin to the yang of his speedy counterpart in the defensive backfield, Thomas.
“I think we complement each other because he’s a small, fast guy back there,” Chancellor said. “He’s a ballhawk – he’s always going after the ball. And I’m the big banger, the one that will come into the box and handle the running back and the tight ends. It’s crazy playing with him because we’re both hungry, we’re both young and we both want to be the best.”
Said Thomas: “He’s my right-hand man.”
DEUCE IS LOOSE
The first thing you notice about Thomas is he looks like he’s moving at a different speed than anyone else on the field.
As Seattle’s deep safety, he is expected to use that speed to cover from sideline to sideline and erase mistakes as the team’s last line of defense.
At 5-10 and 202 pounds, the 23-year-old Thomas has quickly developed in to one of the best safeties in the game, regularly drawing comparison to Pittsburgh’s Troy Polamalu and Baltimore’s Ed Reed.
Thomas finished third on the team with a career-high 92 tackles in 2011. Although he only had two interceptions last year, Thomas did a good job of playing under control and maintaining his assignments.
But it’s the thought of big plays that occupy Thomas’ dreams.
“I always think about touchdowns,” Thomas said. “Even when I’m asleep, I want that ball in my hands. And when I get it, I try (to) make something happen.”
Thomas was dubbed “Deuce” by Seattle defensive coordinator Gus Bradley, who planned on naming his son Deuce if he had another one, but tagged Thomas with it instead in homage to the duo’s budding father-and-son-like relationship.
While quiet and unassuming off the field, Thomas is fiery and emotional between the white lines, exuding a confidence bordering on cockiness.
It’s an attitude that permeates the rest of the defense.
“He’s passionate, and he cares about doing the right thing,” Richard said. “When he cares so much and things go right, you feel that surge of energy. And we absolutely feed off that.
“It’s a fiery passion to constantly improve every day that these guys have bought into and they’re focused on,” Richard said. “The sky is the limit if they continue to come out here and be humble, and just work every day to continue to raise the bar.”