SEATTLE -- It's never a good idea to give yourself a nickname until you've actually accomplished something. If you've actually done NFL deeds as if you were the Steel Curtain or the Fearsome Foursome, that's one thing ... but slapping a moniker on your team before it fits is a bit presumptuous. So the Seattle Seahawks' defense, thought by many to be one of the league's best coming into the 2012 season, found out when they allowed a Kevin Kolb scoring drive late in their eventual 20-16 Week 1 loss to the Arizona Cardinals. The "Legion of Boom" defense, as some had deemed it to be, looked like anything but against one of the NFL's least impressive quarterbacks.
But against a Dallas Cowboys offense that upended the Super Bowl champion New York Giants in the 2012 season opener, the name fit, and was most appropriate. Seattle's defensive unit didn't just hold Dallas' explosive offense down in a 27-7 win -- it also established a physical tone that had Cowboys players throwing errant passes, dropping balls, and hearing footsteps.
Safety Kam Chancellor, who was bringing the hits all day long, said after the game that the way his defense played against the Cowboys was the idea all along. Like many on Pete Carroll's young team, the third-year starter had to match his acumen with his athleticism, and it was obvious in this game that Chancellor and his teammates had done just that. The 6-foot-3, 231-pound safety delivered on anything over the middle, and eventually, even tough veterans like tight end Jason Witten appeared unsure of just what they might be in for on slants and drags.
"That happened a couple of times," Chancellor told me after Seattle's decisive win. "Guys remember the same play from earlier -- they think you're about to hit them again, so they're trying to hurry up and turn around and face up without catching the ball first ... Once that ball comes over the middle and somebody catches it, all I'm thinking about is lights out."
It really started early in Dallas' second drive. With 4:01 left in the first quarter, Tony Romo hit Miles Austin on a little flat pass to his left. Chancellor recognized the route, targeted Austin, and allowed no yards after the catch on a perfectly timed shoulder shiver. Then, Romo hit Witten over the middle for 17 yards, but Witten paid for it as Chancellor squared up and beefed the tight end with another shoulder shot. Witten let three balls go through his hands in the remainder of the game.
The difference this year, and it may be reflective of a league trend having to do with replacement officials, is that the Seahawks aren't getting flagged as they were in 2011 for their close, physical contact with receivers. It seems that now, Seattle's young defenders understand when to time their hits, and when not to lower the boom.
In 2011, Seahawks cornerback Brandon Browner was the NFL's most penalized player per Football Outsiders' data, with 19 (including declined and offsetting) for 160 yards. Only the Oakland Raiders (who generally lead the league as a matter of course) had more total penalties than Seattle's 167. This year, through two games, Browner has one penalty -- defensive holding -- for 5 yards. The most penalized Seahawks player so far? Rookie quarterback Russell Wilson, with four flags, including three delay of game calls.
"You've just got to get used to the game," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "It's one of those things that comes with experience and seeing it. [Chancellor] is so physical and so strong, a lot of the time, it looks like a penalty until you step back and look at it. But when you come across the middle and 31's back there [Chancellor's jersey number] ... I think guys are starting to get a reputation back there. We've got three Pro Bowlers back there -- it's hard to get open."
"You've got to play smart, man," Chancellor said. "You've got to know where to hit a guy. It's precision, and you've got to get it done without getting penalties."
Safety Earl Thomas, the most talented member of that back four, said that the elimination of those penalties was a constant point of emphasis coming into the new season.
"The refs are looking for us to grab." he said. "But these guys did a great job of staying on top and eliminating the big play. Once we take care of the seams and posts, we'll be good."
That was an adjustment made at the half, to be sure. The Seahawks allowed 211 net yards in the first half, and just 85 thereafter. The Kolb drive and the Dallas first half may have been the last litmus tests for a defense finally learning how the game is played at an elevated level.
"There were just a couple of mistakes we made on a couple of big plays, and we eliminated those," Sherman said. "We got communication together, and we were able to fix those mistakes."
"We found our stride a little bit with what we were doing at the line of scrimmage, and we came off the ball beautifully in the second half," head coach Pete Carroll concluded. "We needed to convert a bit to get a couple more chances. The momentum started, and our guys really took over the game."
The Seahawks have an extra day to enjoy that feeling, and they'll need it -- they'll welcome Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers to CenturyLink field for next week's "Monday Night Football" contest. Rodgers, looking to break out and show his true colors after two decent (by his elevated standards) performances this season, poses the sternest test to date.
If they can subdue Rodgers and manage Green Bay's high-flying passing offense, that will be another step taken in living up to the name.