SEATTLE – Before the NFC championship game started, when Seattle Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren was strolling the field and chatting up his guys, he looked up and was greeted by the extended hand of Carolina Panthers wide receiver Steve Smith. The man who had deprived Holmgren of countless hours of sleep had come over to pay his respects.
And this is how Holmgren and the Seahawks paid theirs:
"We beat him up," Seattle safety Michael Boulware said. "We put our hands all over him."
In the order of impossible tasks, the likelihood of stopping Smith ranked slightly behind the odds of finding Jimmy Hoffa's body buried under the Space Needle. Which explains why when the week's game-planning started for Seattle's 25th-ranked pass defense, square one was Carolina's nuclear-powered wideout – along with square two, three and four. By the end of the week's war-gaming, the Seahawks had essentially spent five days playing Steve Smith tic-tac-toe. And by the end of Sunday night, they owned the NFC crown with a 34-14 victory.
"[Smith] is that good, and he deserves that kind of credibility," Boulware said. "You don't give him that kind of respect, and he will beat you all day. I'm glad they put that out there, so we didn't underestimate him at all."
In the end, underestimating Smith may have been the only thing Seattle didn't do. The Seahawks employed consistent Cover 2 defense – two deep safeties, two cornerbacks in the flats, and three linebackers dropping 10 yards for underneath routes – while always keeping at least two defenders assigned to Smith. Occasionally, Seattle dropped as many as eight players into coverage and appeared to have as many as three defenders with Smith as their No. 1 responsibility.
The goal of the defensive plan may never have been more evident than in the first quarter, when the extra attention forced Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme to consistently look off Smith. When he didn't, Delhomme made costly mistakes, the first being an interception by Seattle linebacker Lofa Tatupu at the Carolina 41 – at a time when the Panthers were already trailing 7-0. On that particular play, Smith drew the attention of four different players in pass coverage, with Tatupu dropping underneath Smith and picking Delhomme off at the last second.
Six plays later, the Seahawks added a Josh Brown field goal for a 10-0 lead. Smith wouldn't even catch his first pass until well into the second quarter – a meager four-yarder – with Carolina already trailing 17-0.
"We knew they were going to kind of play Cover 6 [six pass defenders] and kind of bump him at the line and have a safety over the top and they did that," Panthers receiver Ricky Proehl said. "Myself and Drew [Carter] were going to have to make plays and get the running game going, and we couldn't."
It didn't help that Carolina already was without Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster and then lost third-string running back Nick Goings after a first-quarter collision with Tatupu. Even with a Smith punt return for a touchdown in the second quarter, the combination of injuries and a force-fed passing game were lethal blows for the Panthers.
At the same time, Seattle's defense pieced together arguably its best performance of the season. Even playing at home, it was hard to expect this from a unit that spent a season creating a massive amount of quarterback pressure (an NFL-high 50 sacks) but often was relegated to B-list status behind flashier and stauncher NFC units in Tampa Bay, Washington and Carolina.
Now, Seattle has dispatched two of those three teams in back-to-back games, and with defensive performances that looked better than their more celebrated counterparts. In an era when even one hot offseason – or even a few lukewarm regular seasons – suddenly make you head coaching material, that's a feather in the cap of interim defensive coordinator John Marshall.
While handling the load of Ray Rhodes, who has been forced to pull back from his coaching duties after suffering a stroke earlier this season, Marshall has pulled together one of the youngest no-name (for now) defenses in the league. Middle linebacker Tatupu has become one of the steals of last year's draft under Marshall's tutelage, while seemingly every other player has filled some type of vital role with little national fanfare.
Second-year cornerback Jordan Babineaux was Seattle's second-leading tackler, picking up the slack for an injured Kelly Herndon this season. Rookie linebacker LeRoy Hill was one of the league's rookie leaders in sacks (7½) this season. Rocky Bernard was one of the NFL's best pass-rushing defensive tackles, despite not becoming a full-time starter until the second half of the season. This all bodes well for a defense that could be on the cusp of carrying the postseason momentum over to the 2006 regular season and blossoming into one of the league's best defenses.
"All season long, when Ray Rhodes was sick, John had to take over the coordinator's role and he's done a great job," Holmgren said. "We have a pretty young defense, and he was molding a young group that really had not played together much at all."
Wherever those seams were when Marshall took over, they don't appear to be exposed anymore. Not after Carolina amassed a pedestrian 212 yards, and Seattle held Smith to only six catches for 33 yards and no receiving touchdowns. That more than makes up for the handful of other receivers who had big days at Seattle's expense: Jimmy Smith, Torry Holt, Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Lloyd, Drew Bennett, etc. And had it not been for a meaningless touchdown catch by Carter late in the game, Marshall's defense would have been boasting a shutout (minus the Smith score on special teams).
"[Getting called the weak link] did bother us because we knew we were better than what people were saying," Boulware said. "We wanted to prove that point. I think we got that across today, and hopefully we can keep it going."