The Seattle Seahawks are a very good football team. They are what all sport franchises aspire to be — a perennial contender.
They are the rare example of an organization that has skillfully constructed a roster with three formidable and distinct phases. Their special teams unit is amongst the best in the National Football League. The high-functioning offense is expertly led by quarterback Russell Wilson and boasts celebrated veterans like Jimmy Graham and Doug Baldwin.
But the Seattle Seahawks are a team best defined by their defense. It is the solid foundation on which their continued success is built. Stout defense — and the bullish manner in which they provide it — has ultimately become the identity of the franchise.
The modern NFL seems to value defensive versatility as much as physicality. Coordinators attempt to deceive and outwit their offensive counterparts with schematic trickery. Mis-direction and subterfuge are often woven into a team’s defensive playbook.
The Seahawks are an exceptional defensive unit that seems to be built on simplicity. They have acquired players that understand their role and can perform it to a high and consistent standard. They are incredibly organized. They are loaded with talent. They are dynamic, violent and inspiring in equal measure.
What truly separates the Seahawks defense from others in the league is the flexibility they can engineer from the rigidity of their scheme. They employ a fairly standard 4-3 base system. It is not uncommon for defensive end Michael Bennett, from play to play, to slide up and down the line of scrimmage to vary the point of attack. He does so safe in the knowledge his linebacking trio are tuned to his movement and will make any necessary or compensatory adjustments.
Behind them is perhaps the most celebrated secondary in football — a grouping that has earned the collective moniker the Legion of Boom. The hard-hitting unit is centrally anchored by the safety tandem of Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas. The left cornerback role is occupied by the enigmatic Richard Sherman. He is loud. He is abrasive. He is also one of the very best in the game. His somewhat excessive vocal nature is balanced with an incredible level of athleticism and talent. For further context, this article is posting just days after Sherman took to an official NFL media podium dressed in full Harry Potter costume. He proceeded to field questions about Quidditch.
The final member of the secondary is DeShawn Shead.
Shead doesn’t advertise soup. He doesn’t sell pistachios. He is a bit more … muggle.
He wasn’t drafted. After playing college football at Portland State he was signed to Seattle’s practice squad. His ascension from training field prospect to fourth cog in an admired machine has been relatively swift. It can also be attributed to his ability to seize an opportunity. He has earned his role. After graduating to the active roster Shead took to the field as reserve cornerback and safety. He displayed versatility and reliability. He demanded reps through performance. He worked hard. He gained the trust of his coaching staff.
This level of professionalism and diligence are pre-requisites for a Seattle Seahawk. They are an absolute must for a member of the Legion of Boom.
But what is perhaps most telling about DeShawn Shead is the comparative anonymity he still enjoys despite being part of such a high-profile unit. It is all the more remarkable when we consider the position he occupies on this team.
It is very much an accepted norm that the elite cornerback is called upon to track the opposition’s top receiver. This type of duel will play out throughout games on a weekly basis. The best cornerback will shadow the stud receiver. This is where Seattle deviate from the expected behavior of the NFL. Richard Sherman stays on the left side of the field. He, by every conceivable grading tool, is a top cornerback. But he rarely ventures from his designated slot in the secondary. This, it would seem, presents the offense with a considerable advantage. They are able to move their top target to a position of the field that they can almost guarantee Sherman will not be. They can optimize the match-up. They can exploit the weaker cornerback.
Yet a planned and continued exploitation of Shead hasn’t materialized. Football, perhaps more than rival pursuits, is a game that is very deeply analyzed. Plays are routinely dismantled by studio experts armed with Telestrators and abundant camera angles. But at no point in his career are we bearing witness to an isolated DeShawn Shead being targeted as a ‘weak-link’. Indeed, we rarely hear his name in commentary without an accompanying platitude. In this, the harshest of competitive environments, the fact he goes largely unnoticed is surely indicative of his competence. The glare of the media may focus more on his team-mates but his performance level is such that he blends into this top-tier defense. He fits comfortably into their scheme.
Shead’s latest outing as a Seahawk can be viewed as a suitable exhibition of his talents. Last Sunday evening Seattle faced the Arizona Cardinals in a contest that ended in a tie. This, of itself, is rare in professional football. Both teams had excelled in defense. Regulation time had seen each team concede only a single field goal. The resultant overtime saw each team fail to capitalize beyond an additional field goal. The game ended in a 6-6 tie.
Such a scoreline may immediately suggest offensive failings. The reality was that both teams were very good defensively. Shead was predictably understated but thoroughly effective on the night.
Time and time again he took his place on the right corner of the scheme. He would face off against whatever receiver they positioned in his zone. At the snap Shead never looked hurried. He maintained composure as he tracked the oncoming receiver. He seemed able to keep pace, match acceleration and counter any directional deviation. He didn’t look to enforce physicality as much as maintain control of the situation.
On obvious running plays — without a stationed wide receiver — Shead would tuck in towards the line of scrimmage and offer support. He never looked like he was going through the motions. He seemed switched on. He looked eager to be involved in the tackle.
The definitive moment of Shead’s performance that night occurred late in overtime with Arizona aggressively chasing the win. The Cardinals, conscious of the dwindling clock, had abandoned conservative plays and were giving quarterback Carson Palmer license to take shots downfield. Palmer lofted a well measured throw towards his most advanced receiver. Shead had tracked his run and stayed close as the play unfolded. Ultimately the ball was slightly overthrown but not enough to be considered ‘uncatchable’. But despite the high-stakes involved Shead had resisted any urge to lay hands on the receiver or impede him in any physical way. His concentration and reliance on astute positioning meant he wasn’t at any risk of being called for pass interference.
To be called for such a foul could have been catastrophic for Seattle’s chances of victory. But Shead was patient. He had faith in his ability. He was controlled in a spot where the more volatile may have lost their head.
DeShawn Shead, as he has done throughout his Seattle Seahawk career, without fuss or spectacle, simply did his job.