Ask the average NFL fan, and this question seems like a real no-brainer. Of course, would be the obvious answer. In a recent ranking of the Top Five Secondaries in the NFL, Mike Tanier of Sports on Earth put it this way. “The Seahawks ranked first. Go ahead and argue otherwise, once you are finished posting to your Flat Earth message board.” Seemingly, there is no reason even to debate this. He made no argument for this position. There is no need for discussion, no need to question, it’s simply a fact.
Yet, debate we must. Tanier made a case for the Seahawks to be one of the top secondaries of all time, an argument I wouldn’t necessarily disagree with, at least on the basis of their 2013 performance.
But this isn’t 2013. All across the NFL, the secondaries of multiple teams have made huge strides forward, while the Seahawks have seemingly stood still, if not moved backwards. Join me as we take a look at two teams which could unseat the Seahawks dominance in secondary in 2014.
New England Patriots
For Tanier, the Patriots didn’t even crack the top five secondaries in the league, and looking at their 2013 stats alone, it’s easy to see why.
But the 2013 Patriots are no more, in 2014, the Patriots secondary is quickly shaping up to be one of the toughest in the league.
If fans were in any doubt that the Patriots are serious about moving past their dreadful secondary play last season, all of this was answered with two words—Darrelle Revis.
When he was signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers not 12 months ago, the consensus was unanimous. The Buccaneers had just scooped the single biggest free agency prize. Sure, Revis struggled to live up to that expectation in Tampa, but the simple fact of the matter is that had much more to do with Tampa Bay, and the way they utilised him, than it did with Revis or his skills. No-one expects Bill Belichick to make the same mistakes.
Add to that Brandon Browner—a key component of the Seahawks secondary success in recent years, and Devin McCourty, arguably one of the best players at his position in the NFL today, and you have the makings of a dominant group.
However, where they really set themselves apart from the Seahawks is at depth. The losses of Browner and Walter Thurmond has left the Seahawks relatively thin at what was once a position of strength for the team. A single injury to either starter would be problematic for the team, especially given how much of their defensive playbook is tailored for these players.
However, for the Patriots, there are no fewer than five serviceable cornerbacks on their roster. Chief among them is Logan Ryan, one of the few standout defensive players during the Patriots 2013 campaign, and a young player who would be making a case for upgrade to full-time starter on almost any other team.
Want to disagree—then take it up with Richard Sherman himself. Sherman recently claimed that “they’ll definitely be a top 2, top-3 secondary in football.” Given that we can assume Sherman isn’t going to rank anyone as better than himself, that’s high praise indeed, but since we’re not so convinced by the strength in-depth of the Seahawks, it could easily be argued that you could move both of those rankings up by one.
Overall, it’s too early to say whether all the new pieces the Patriots have assembled will come together quickly enough to be considered the best secondary in football yet, but certainly, the pieces are in place, and the potential exists for them to unseat the Seahawks.
The Arizona Cardinals.
It’s no secret, I’m a Cardinals fan, but bias notwithstanding, few would disagree that the Cardinals owned one of the NFL’s better defences in 2013. Few would miss a beat if you were to apply the words élite to the unit as a whole, and no-one would question applying it to one of its cornerstones, Pro Bowl corner Patrick Peterson.
Peterson publicly questioned whether Richard Sherman was truly a shutdown corner, or just a product of his system this offseason. And while Sherman was quick to respond with a list of stats as long as his arm, one stat was conveniently ignored: In 2013, Peterson specifically, and the Cardinals in general, ranking number one, bar none, against oppositions top receiver. By comparison, against a team’s number one receiver, three teams did a better job of shutting him down than the Seahawks, who ranked fourth.
In 2013, Peterson lined up against the teams number one receiver on virtually every down, and in spite of this, was still targeted a mere 85 times. Sherman is quick to point out that he was targeted only 58 times, that teams simply do not want to throw his way—but this is only part of the story.
As the numbers clearly show, part of the reason teams are not throwing his way is because they don’t need to. Simply moving their number one guy to the opposite side of the field allows them to avoid Sherman, and target their top receiver at the same time. Put simply, the Seahawks secondary may be top at a number of key metrics, but stopping a teams number one receiver simply isn’t one of them.
However, the Cardinals are more than Peterson, just as the Seahawks more than Sherman, and here too, the Cardinals defense have really set themselves apart from their already impressive 2013 incarnation.
Last season, the Cardinals secondary still felt one or two pieces short of their best. Jerraud Powers, Tony Jefferson and Rashad Johnson were all serviceable, when called upon during the season, but none felt unbeatable. All felt like they could be exploited, and numerous teams found ways to do that, especially those with receiving tight ends.
Aware of this fact, the Cardinals went out and added Antonio Cromartie, a ball hawk who thrives when quarterbacks are forced to throw to less dependable receivers—exactly who he will be lining up against for the Cardinals—and Deone Bucannon, a tall, physical safety who can hit like a truck, and match up against even the toughest tight ends in the game.
Add to that Tyrann Mathieu—the Honey Badger—who emerged as one of the most explosive players in the NFL, and you have one of the top secondary groups in the NFL.
Where this team really shine, however, is not just the personnel they have, but the flexibility this gives them. Mathieu can just as easily line up as a nickel corner as he can safety. Moreover, if the team need a little added pressure, you’re just as likely to see Mathieu taking the role of pass rusher, or, for that matter, just about anything else asked of him.
Bucannon is very much a safety in the mould of Adrian Wilson, giving Todd Bowles the option to line him up at the line of scrimmage if he wants. He hits hard, and can really disrupt a team over the middle if he needs to. The team simply have so many options with these four players, that predicting what the next play will look like based on personnel is a near impossible task.
Nothing is out-of-bounds, from a play calling point of view, for this secondary. For that reason alone, I would rank this group better than the Seahawks.
Let’s not mince words, the Seahawks do what they do better than anyone else in all of football, but that’s all they do. Find a way to exploit that. Find a way to nullify their plans, and they have no Plan B. Admittedly, very few teams have found the chink in the armour yet. Few teams have found a way to exploit their secondary, but when they do—and it is surely only a matter of time—the whole house of cards begins to crumble.
The same simply isn’t true for the Cardinals. They have so much versatility, so much flexibility that if one thing isn’t working, you can seamlessly switch to the next, and you don’t even need to change personnel to do it.
According to Football Outsiders DVOA rankings, the Cardinals owned the second best defense in football in 2013. Looking at the secondary, it is vastly improved for 2014, and there is only one way to go from there… Straight to number one.
In truth, the main reason most pundits are not speaking this way is simply that the Tyrann Mathieu is still recovering from a serious ACL and LCL injury sustained in Week 13 of 2013. Even if he is back to full fitness for week 1 of 2014—far from a guarantee—few expect him to be back to his best for several weeks afterwards.
For me, it’s less of a concern. The addition of Bucannon alone means that Rashad Johnson should have an easier time if called upon to fill in for an injured Mathieu for a few weeks. Mathieu immediately stood out in the Cardinals defense in 2013, in spite of missing a full year of college football prior to the draft.
I have no concerns that Mathieu will be back very early in the season, even if not week one, and will be mentally and physically ready when he does. And as soon as he is back in the lineup, for me at least, the Cardinals secondary immediately becomes number one in the NFL.
So that’s my thoughts, what do you think? Let me know in the comments.