Stingy defense sets the tone for the Seahawks

RENTON, Wash. — Michael Bennett, starting defensive end for the Seattle Seahawks, was not bowled over watching Philadelphia's defense in the first round of the NFL playoffs.

"They didn't want to tackle," Bennett said of the Eagles in their 26-24 loss to New Orleans. "They wanted to go to Turks and Caicos. It's cold in Philly; they were ready for the off-season.

"It was amazing to see. It was such a championship moment and I think in the playoffs you've got to take those jumps, you've got to make those tackles. You can't be worried about yourself, you've got to be worried about the team in those situations."

Python-tight tackling hasn't been an issue for Seattle, which plays host to the Saints on Saturday in a divisional playoff game.

The Seahawks had the NFL's top scoring defense this season, giving up only 20 touchdowns, and only 12 in the last 11 games. In fact, the four remaining NFC teams were the league's top four defenses in that department, with Carolina second, then San Francisco and New Orleans.

Dropping offensive players in their tracks has been a point of emphasis for the Seahawks, and it shows. They don't give up many big plays. For instance, last season Seattle's defense was worst in the league at allowing opponents to convert on third and 10 or longer, giving up first downs in 33.8% of those situations. This season, the Seahawks are first in that department at a paltry 7.4%.

"This year we've seen a lot of missed tackles, and we wanted to be one of those teams that doesn't miss too many tackles," middle linebacker Bobby Wagner said. "If they catch a five-yard route, we try to make sure it's just five yards. No yards after the catch."

That will be key against Drew Brees and the high-flying Saints, who in recent weeks have also made big strides in their ground attack. At Philadelphia, New Orleans ran for 185 yards — the third-highest total against the Eagles this season — and converted 53% of their third downs (seven of 13).

Meanwhile, Seattle's offense has sputtered since a 34-7 pounding of the Saints on Dec. 2. After that, the Seahawks lost to the 49ers, 19-17; scored only two touchdowns in a 23-0 shutout of the New York Giants despite picking off five Eli Manning passes; lost at home to Arizona, 17-10; and, although they beat St. Louis in the finale, 27-9, didn't score their first offensive touchdown until late in the third quarter.

Darrell Bevell, Seattle's offensive coordinator, said the two main points of focus are improving on third down and in the red zone. The long-awaited return of receiver Percy Harvin could be a big help; various injuries sidelined him for all but one game this season, but he was able to practice Tuesday and probably will get the thumbs up for Saturday.

When they are clicking, the Seahawks are formidable on offense. Quarterback Russell Wilson is one of four players in NFL history to throw for at least 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons, joining Dan Marino, Peyton Manning and Andy Dalton. Running back Marshawn Lynch ran for a career-high 14 touchdowns this season, and is the league's only player to run for more than 1,000 yards and score at least 10 touchdowns on the ground in each of the last three seasons.

But a smothering defense has been Seattle's calling card this season — and right from the start of games. The Seahawks are the only team in the league not to give up a single point on an opening drive. The league average is four touchdowns over the course of the season.

The slow-starting Indianapolis Colts are 29th in that department, having surrendered 45 points the first time opposing teams touched the ball. The other playoff teams have done better — San Francisco (seven points), Carolina (13), New England (16), Denver (20), New Orleans (33), San Diego (34) — but no one matched the big zero of the top-seeded Seahawks.

Blunting an offense from the start can help take the crowd out of the game on the road, and doing that in Seattle only cranks up the volume of an already raucous crowd.

"Every game, you want to go out there and set the tone," Wagner said. "You don't want a team on its opening drive to get in a rhythm, get comfortable. As soon as they get comfortable, you've got to really work on that. So the main thing we do is we try to knock them off rhythm from the moment they walk into the stadium."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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