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Do the Seahawks still have a Super Bowl-caliber defense?

When the Seahawks faced Minnesota on Dec. 6, they held Adrian Peterson to 18 yards on eight carries. AP Photo/Ann Heisenfelt

Down the stretch of Sunday's game against the Arizona Cardinals, TV cameras caught Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas on the sideline gesturing emphatically to his teammates on the field.

The backups were in, and word had spread that Seattle's defense had a chance to once again finish with the fewest points allowed for the season. The crown was something they wanted, and DeShawn Shead's interception gave the Seahawks the title for the fourth year in a row.

With Sunday's wild-card game against the Minnesota Vikings approaching, much of the buzz is about Russell Wilson's development and Marshawn Lynch's potential return. But what about the defense? Is it as good as the previous two units that led the way to the Super Bowl?

Here's a look.

Against the run

The Seahawks are a single-high-safety team, meaning they're consistently able to commit eight defenders to stopping the run. When they faced the Vikings on Dec. 6, they held Adrian Peterson to 18 yards on eight carries.

The run defense was outstanding during the regular season. Stacked linebackers K.J. Wright and Bobby Wagner combined for 230 tackles and six forced fumbles. Strong safety Kam Chancellor adds another physical presence in the box. Defensive linemen Michael Bennett and Cliff Avril combined for 29 tackles for loss.

The unsung heroes have been defensive tackles Ahtyba Rubin and Brandon Mebane. Every week, they clog the middle, hold their ground and take up space. Coach Pete Carroll has said Rubin is the best 3-technique he has had in Seattle.

The run defense has not dropped off from previous years. The Seahawks are holding opponents to 3.6 yards per carry and are third in Football Outsiders' DVOA rankings against the run. That, as opposed to a prolific passing offense, is why the Vikings present a favorable matchup.

Against the pass

There were concerns early with this group. Chancellor held out the first two games, and cornerback Cary Williams was benched and eventually released.

The Seahawks have looked vulnerable against teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Cardinals in their first meeting. But overall, the numbers say they're close, for the most part, to where they were a year ago.

Their DVOA rank against the pass is the same as last year, and the Seahawks are better in terms of opponents' passer rating.

So-called explosive plays are where there's a difference. The Seahawks allowed 49 pass plays of 20-plus yards, compared with 32 last year and 30 in 2013. That comes out to one explosive play every 11.2 attempts. It was 15.8 attempts last year and 17.5 in 2013.

There are two areas to keep an eye on heading into the postseason. One is at right cornerback. Since Williams left, the Seahawks have been mixing in Shead and Jeremy Lane opposite Richard Sherman. Lane suffered a rib injury last week, and it's unclear which player will get the start against the Vikings. On the other side, Sherman has been his usual self. The Seahawks rank first against opposing No. 1 wide receivers, according to Football Outsiders, and he's the reason why.

The Seahawks rank 26th in covering tight ends, though. Offenses will continue to attack the seams and the area behind the linebackers but in front of Thomas.

In terms of the pass rush, the Seahawks finished 15th in sacks per dropback. Since Week 10, they are 25th (5.1 percent). Bennett (10 sacks) and Avril (nine sacks) are disruptive, but the Seahawks haven't gotten much production from the rest of the group, particularly in the second half of the season.

Overall

Here's how the defense compares overall with the previous two years.

The Seahawks finished fourth in DVOA, first in points allowed and third in yards allowed per play. Carroll's system continues to be effective, even though the team is on its third coordinator in four years. A lot of that has been because of the talent general manager John Schneider has acquired, including five Pro Bowl defenders this season.

Schematically, there haven't been many changes under Kris Richard. The Seahawks are actually blitzing less (21.9 percent) than they did the past two years. And they're still predominantly a Cover 3 team.

Looking ahead, the teams that could have success against them will have strong offensive lines and quarterbacks who can do damage even when coverage is good. Arizona's Carson Palmer and Carolina's Cam Newton fit that description, although the Seahawks showed in stretches this season that they can give both those guys problems.

Carroll's formula hasn't changed, and he's still a defense-minded coach. Even though the offense has been on fire, if the Seahawks are going to make a run, chances are they'll need the defense to win a game along the way. When that happens, we'll find out how this group compares with the units of the previous two years.