'Step-kick' is one secret to Seahawks' success on defense

Richard Sherman has mastered the Seahawks' step-kick technique. Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

RENTON, Wash. -- Pete Carroll needed a second to jog his memory.

Asked where the step-kick technique for defensive backs originated, the Seattle Seahawks coach couldn't offer a concrete answer. But he did remember where he first saw it.

"I’d go back to Willie Brown," Carroll said. "I’ve watched Willie Brown do it, I don’t even know how long ago it was, probably back in 1981 or '82 teaching it at the Raiders-49ers camp one day in the summertime. It’s that old. I just watched him do it, and then we’ve been teaching it that way ever since."

Brown was the defensive backs coach with the Raiders at the time and had been a Hall of Fame cornerback. Carroll was a college assistant taking in an NFL practice. He liked what he saw, learned more about it and has used it to build elite secondaries at the college and NFL levels for the last 30-plus years.

The technique refers to cornerbacks who are pressing at the line of scrimmage. It focuses on taking away the deep ball and also the short stuff. In basketball terms, make opposing offenses take a bunch of mid-range jumpers. If they complete those balls, players focus on tackling, limiting yards after catch and moving on to the next play.

"You’re not going to gamble in this defense and not be held accountable," said cornerback Richard Sherman, who is considered to have a master's degree in the step-kick. "You’re not just going to keep giving up big plays and stay on the field. If you give up a certain amount of big plays, you give up a certain amount of touchdowns, they’ll find somebody who won’t."

Added Carroll: "In our defensive scheme, we are extraordinarily tied to that principle. If you give up long touchdown plays, you’re not a very good defense. It doesn’t matter what you do or how hard you hit or whatever. So it all begins there. That’s the first aspect of playing defense. You can’t give up easy plays. So it just begins there."

Two key coaching points to the technique are staying on top of receivers and showing patience at the line of scrimmage.

For new Seahawks cornerback Cary Williams, neither of those things came naturally when he first started practicing in Seattle.

"Philadelphia, we were taught to shuffle, slide to a degree," Williams said. "So it’s a lot different. I’ve been traveling, this is my fourth team now, so I’ve been learning different techniques from every organization that I’ve been on.

"I was always taught to initiate the contact with the wide receiver, not allow the wide receiver to initiate contact with me. So that was always the mindset for me and the focus. Now it’s different."

The step always comes with the outside foot when the ball is snapped. The patience is required when allowing the receiver to make the first move. Seahawks defensive backs are taught to wait until the receiver enters their sphere (arm length) before contacting them.

The eyes stay on the receiver's numbers, and the body has to stay square. "Opening the gate" or turning their hips early is a no-no. When they strike with their hands within the 5-yard window, they target the receiver's pectoral muscles. And that happens simultaneously with the kick. As Seahawks defensive backs put it, step for patience, kick for position.

"It is a big adjustment," defensive coordinator Kris Richard said. "Really, the biggest advantage is the wide receiver making his declaration in the way he’s going. Once he makes a declaration to us, he’s the one confined to timing and spacing. We don’t know where he’s going, so we’re just covering. We’re reactors. Again, once he makes his declaration, it allows us to react."

Added Sherman: "It’s incredibly difficult if you haven’t ever done it. If you’ve never done it, it’s one of the harder things to do in football because you have somebody incredibly fast and athletic running at you and you have to stand there at the line of scrimmage almost flat-footed. It’s tough for some guys."

Some schemes teach trail technique, in which defensive backs essentially follow the wide receivers from behind. But the Seahawks are obsessed with staying on top and leading the way.

"That’s all we talk about," Williams said. "It’s almost like a daily thing you get drilled in your head each and every day."

The results the past several years speak for themselves. Since Kam Chancellor returned in Week 3, the Seahawks have gone eight quarters without allowing a touchdown and they've forced punts on 18 of 20 possessions. But they'll be tested Sunday against a Bengals offense that has had great success downfield.

Quarterback Andy Dalton is averaging 10.23 yards per attempt and the Bengals are tied for tops in the league with 20 pass plays of 20-plus yards.

When Carroll developed his overall coaching philosophy, he wanted to find areas where his teams could do things better than they had ever been done before. With the step-kick technique, the Seahawks feel like they are doing just that.

In the current starting secondary, only safety Earl Thomas was taken before the fifth round. In the offseason, the Seahawks lost starter Byron Maxwell to the Eagles and signed Williams. Through four games, he's playing some of the best football of his career. The Lions tested Williams deep three times last week, and all three resulted in incompletions.

"I’ve been blessed enough to come to a team that’s taught me a different outlook on the position," he said. "We focus on it, and we practice it each and every day. I’m not necessarily perfect at the technique by any means, but I’ve definitely gotten better at it and I’ve improved drastically."

Asked what the hardest part was to get down, Williams said: "Probably just putting the outside foot up and down, picking it up and down. That was hard because in some places I’ve always put my left foot up, and sometimes I press back and would move a little bit, shuffle, slide sometimes. And there were a lot of inconsistencies. But with the practice here and the technique here, I’ve just been more consistent, staying in one spot and being patient."

In the NFL, when one team has success with something, others copy. That's especially true for a team like the Seahawks that has sent defensive coordinators Gus Bradley and Dan Quinn to Jacksonville and Atlanta, respectively, to be head coaches.

But the Seahawks still feel like they have an edge over their peers. One, because of Carroll's experience. Two, because of their talent. And three, because of the rest of the coaching staff. Assistant head coach Rocky Seto spent 11 years coaching at USC before joining Carroll with the Seahawks. And Richard learned the technique as a player for Carroll with the Trojans.

"I just know that in 2001, when [Carroll] showed up to USC, we had this brand-new technique, and it was something that we hadn’t done before," Richard said. "But when it started to work for us, you can just buy in. You put yourself in position and felt so much more comfortable being on top of the receiver than anything else.

"I’m almost sure that we’re more familiar with the ins and outs of it all. It could be absolutely duplicated, try it and replicate it and things of that nature. But ultimately, we’re the guys that have had the most experience with it. As far as all the nuances are concerned, I think we’re a little ahead of the curve."