RENTON, Wash. >> As the newest starter in the Seattle Seahawks secondary, cornerback Byron Maxwell had plenty of time earlier in his career to be an observer.
What he noticed about his teammates on the back end of Seattle’s defense was a desire to be great in practice that transferred to the playing field.
“Guys around here they just want that. They want it. They want to be successful. They want to be great,” Maxwell said. “You’ve got two dudes who argue, Earl (Thomas) and (Richard Sherman). They go at it. They’re passionate about it. They want to be the best in history.”
Seattle finished the regular season with the best pass defense in the NFL and one of the best in the past decade. They gave up 172 yards passing per game, grabbed 28 interceptions and had an opponent passer rating of 63.4, one of just 15 teams since 2000 to hold opposing passers to a rating of 65.0 or less.
The Seahawks’ best performance came in Week 13 against New Orleans, holding Drew Brees to one of the worst games in his career in Seattle’s 34-7 blowout victory. Brees threw for just 147 yards in the loss, the fewest for him in any game since the 2006 season.
Now comes the challenge of duplicating that success in Saturday’s NFC divisional playoff game against the Saints, knowing that Brees, coach Sean Payton and the rest of the New Orleans offense will try to counter what Seattle does so well.
In the first meeting the Seahawks were strong in two areas. They got significant pressure on Brees with their defensive line to disrupt timing. The Seahawks also didn’t allow deep throws over the top, forcing Brees to choose secondary targets on short passes.
Brees wasn’t able to find openings in a Seattle secondary that features three All-Pro selections — Thomas and Sherman were first-team picks while strong safety Kam Chancellor was a second-team choice — and was dominant the final nine games of the season.
Only once over the final nine games did Seattle allow a team to have more than 200 net yards passing. That distinction belonged to Minnesota, which finished with 204 yards passing in a game Seattle led 41-13 early in the fourth quarter before giving up a late score in a 41-20 win.
“We are just situationally aware,” Sherman said. “We study together as a group, as a defense. We study concepts. We study plays. We study tendencies, quarterbacks, their movements. We are really a very disciplined film-watching football team.”
The success of Seattle’s pass defense is largely due to the talent in the secondary with Sherman and Thomas being first-team All-Pro picks for a second straight season and each in the conversation for defensive player of the year.
And the secondary has been helped by Seattle’s improved pass rush. Seattle finished with 44 sacks in the regular season, up from 36 in 2012. While they had only one sack against Brees in the first game, they were successful in getting enough pressure to disrupt timing and forced the only turnover of the game. Brees was stripped by Cliff Avril with Michael Bennett returned the fumble for a touchdown.
“It makes my reads easier and I can be more aggressive,” Thomas said of the pass rush. “All that works hand and hand, that’s why we’re all tied on a string, and these guys have been great this season.”
Seattle was outstanding in the first meeting with New Orleans at not giving up the big play to an offense that racked up a number of long touchdowns on the season. According to STATS, Brees had 14 touchdown passes this season in which the ball traveled at least 21 or more yards in the air.
But the longest pass completion Seattle allowed was a 20-yard catch-and-run by Jimmy Graham. Brees could never connect with his receivers downfield and regularly double-clutched his throws, pulling back and choosing not to challenge Seattle’s secondary and finding other options on shorter passes. He was 2 of 12 on passes of 11 or more yards and failed to complete a pass of 21 yards or more.
Twenty-one of Brees’ 23 completions in the loss were thrown 10 yards or less.
“You look at the coverage they play, and even in their zone, the coverage is outside and in a lot of cases it’s bump-and-run,” Brees said. “So it’s the style of defense that they play and thrive on.”
AP Sports Writer Brett Martel contributed to this report.