Three weeks ago, when Seattle smothered the New Orleans Saints 34-7 at CenturyLink Field, ESPN analyst Jon Gruden littered the broadcast with effusive praise of the Seahawks defense, properly so. Gruden didn’t quantify his gushings, preferring generic hosannas to describe a unit in the midst of one of its notable smackdowns.
“Great, fantastic, terrific,” Gruden enthused, at one point noting, “This is the best defense in the league.”
Gruden knows of such stuff. In 2002, he directed the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 12-4 record and a 48-21 victory over Oakland in Super Bowl XXXVII with an offense of no particular distinction — it ranked 18th in scoring — but with a defense that became the second to lead the NFL in fewest points and yards allowed, plus interceptions.
Featuring Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber (Sapp is in the Hall of Fame and Brooks and Lynch are 2014 semifinalists), Tampa Bay held opponents to 10 or fewer points nine times, finishing the year yielding 12.2 per game. Watching the Seahawks defense crush Drew Brees and the New Orleans offense must have made Gruden nostalgic, considering the similarity of his 2002 Bucs and the 2013 Seahawks (numbers are defensive; TO=turnovers created; QB Rate=opponent quarterback rating):
|Year||Team||Rec.||Avg. Yds||Per Play||QB Rate||TO||TDs||PPG|
The 2002 Bucs featured one of the NFL’s best defenses in the past two-plus decades, slightly better statistically than the 1990 New York Giants and not quite the equal of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, who allowed 10.3 points per game while ceding five rushing and 11 passing touchdowns in 16 games.
This year’s Seahawks aren’t quite that formidable, but they’re close, allowing an average of 14.6 points with four rushing and 14 passing touchdowns in 14 contests.
The 2000 Ravens frequently show up on compilations of the NFL’s all-time greatest defenses, most notably on an ESPN list published a few years ago that, with input from NFL coaches and ex-coaches, had the Ravens ranked No. 3, below the 1976 Pittsburgh Steelers and 1985 Chicago Bears.
Hard to beat those Steelers, and here’s why: In the final nine games of the ’76 season, the Steel Curtain allowed 28 points. Also hard to beat the ’85 Bears, who allowed 17 touchdowns in a 15-1 season. By way of comparison, the Seahawks have ceded 18 so far.
Due to rules changes enacted to protect the physical well being of modern offensive players, it’s difficult to compare defenses from different eras. The 1962 Packers and 1963 Bears could spear quarterbacks with impunity and mug wide receivers throughout their routes without flags flying. Not today.
The 1973 Dolphins and 1975 Rams never worried about “defenseless” players. All were fair game for bell-ringings. For those reasons, stats don’t easily cross generations, as they do in baseball, but comparing them makes for fun eye candy.
The current Seahawks defense doesn’t quite measure up statistically to ESPN’s list of the all-time best, which, in addition to the “Steel Curtain,” includes Minnesota’s “Purple People Eaters,” Miami’s “No-Name Defense” and Chicago’s “Monsters of the Midway,” but if Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Bobby Wagner played with the same rulebook that Mean Joe Greene, Jack Lambert and Mel Blount did, you might imagine where the Seahawks might rank on this list (ESPN ranked the defenses 1 through 10):
|Year||Team||Rec.||Avg Yds||Per Play||QB Rate||TO||TDs||PPG|
Even playing under more restrictive rules, the current Seahawks defense is in the ballpark statistically with the NFL’s most legendary ones. Note from the chart that they permit slightly fewer yards per play than the 1990 Giants, have a better opponent quarterback rating than the 2000 Ravens, and have a chance to finish the season with fewer touchdowns allowed than the 1985 Bears.
Most of the teams on ESPN’s list featured a dominating lineman or linebacker – Mike Singletary of the 1985 Bears is a good example – whereas the strength of the Seahawks defense is considered to be the secondary, which allows 174.2 passing yards per game, the best figure in the league.
But whoa there. Seattle has allowed only four rushing touchdowns. The 1976 Steelers, ESPN’s greatest stop unit ever, allowed five in the same number of games played by the Seahawks. The 1985 Bears (ESPN’s No. 2) allowed seven and the 2000 (No. 3) Ravens five. The only teams to allow as few as four rushing TDs in a season: the 1962 Packers, 1975 Rams and 2013 Seahawks. So is Seattle’s secondary really the team’s main defensive strength, or has the Legion of Boom (or Bong) simply received more publicity?
Rather than view Seahawks in the context of legendary defenses, it’s more instructive to compare them to contemporary teams, specifically Super Bowl winners over the last decade that played under similar rules.
|Year||Champ||Rec.||Avg Yds||Per Play||QB Rate||TO||TDs Allw.||PPG|
The last two bold-faced lines of the chart say it all. Note, especially, the disparity in defensive touchdowns allowed between the Seahawks and the average of the past 10 Super Bowl champions. Also note that the Seahawks have allowed fewer yards and yards per play, a lower opponent quarterback rating, and fewer average points, and have created more turnovers than the average of the last 10 Super Bowl champions.
Doesn’t mean Seattle will win the Super Bowl. Doesn’t mean the Seahawks will win their final two which, if they don’t, and San Francisco wins out, will give the NFC West to the 49ers, send the Seahawks on a much more rigorous playoff path, and ultimately make all of the above moot.
What it does say is that the 600+ player transactions the Seahawks have made since John Schneider and Pete Carroll took the reigns in 2010 have placed the Seahawks in a position to go down as one of the elite teams in NFL history.