This is a guest post from Curtis Allen…
Can the coaching staff avoid a sluggish start on defense for the third season in a row?
The last two seasons have seen the Seahawks start out on a horrendous pace:
— Through 5 games the 2020 team conceded an average of 471 yards per game
— Through 5 games the 2021 team conceded an average of 451 yards per game
How bad is that? For reference, the all-time worst defense in NFL history over a full season is the 2012 New Orleans Saints, who conceded 440 yards per game.
The Seahawks had them easily beat in those stretches.
One could even argue the 2021 season start was worse than 2020, given that the only Seahawks starter on defense who was new to the system and coaching staff was Kerry Hyder. This team had no excuses for such a poor first quarter.
Starters like Tre Flowers – who had earlier been lauded by Pete Carroll for having his ‘best offseason yet’ and had won the right corner spot, moving D.J. Reed to his less-familiar left side – spoke for the fans when he openly expressed that the team simply was not ready to play after a disastrous Week Three performance against Minnesota:
Interesting comments from Tre Flowers on Seattle’s pass defense: “It’s a schematic thing, I feel like. I’ve got my own questions to ask.” Said there’s confusion among some guys on how to defend certain routes. “It’s going to be an easy fix once we all get on the same page.”
— Brady Henderson (@BradyHenderson) September 27, 2021
What happened? You cannot blame COVID for limiting the offseason activities, as all NFL teams had to deal with that. In fact, being one of the NFL’s best teams in number of cases should have provided an advantage. Yet it did not.
A preventable ‘hold-in’ by Jamal Adams combined with drastically changing his role in the defense only added to the challenges.
By the time the defense began to gel somewhat, Russell Wilson had suffered a serious injury and the offense struggled to hold their end of the bargain, culminating in a very disappointing season.
After the season Ken Norton Jr and Andre Curtis were fired, Clint Hurtt promoted and Sean Desai and Karl Scott were brought in.
How can they all get on the same page and start the season with a unified goal? Hurtt has cited communication as an important key to cohesiveness in a press conference last month:
“The biggest thing right now is there’s a lot of communication. In and out of different calls…so you have multiplicity….So with multiplicity, guys being on the same page, on all three levels of the defense is crucial. If not, bad things can happen. Guys have to constantly be on the same page.”
Very true and a worthy goal. However, we have heard platitudes and statements of intent the last two offseasons and the Seahawks have been unable to marry them to on-field results.
COVID may not be hindering the team as much this year but they will have just as many challenges to building a cohesive defense as any other year – challenges that impact every position group on defense:
— Starting safeties Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs are still rehabbing injuries and Adams’ role in the defense may change yet again with this new staff implementing a 3-4 style defense
— The cornerback spots are once again loaded with newcomers that need to get up to speed quickly
— Pete Carroll was coy when asked about where Cody Barton and Jordyn Brooks will play at linebacker. Perhaps he is considering changing their roles? Combine that with a shift to more of a 3-4 scheme and you have the possibility of everyone learning new roles.
— On the defensive line, the Seahawks added Uchenna Nwosu, Boye Mafe, Tyreke Smith and need to further develop Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson
Can the Seahawks really integrate all these changes in a way that sets them up for success?
The good news is Hurtt is a straight shooter. He does not come across as someone who makes excuses for players like Ken Norton did. It is conceivable that he will be able to convince Pete Carroll to play the best players in positions that maximize their abilities, and let this defense come together with a shared vision far earlier than in past years.
Sean Desai was also a valuable addition to the staff. He has a PhD in education. He will need every bit of that teaching ability to help the staff put a product on the field that can keep this team balanced and effective early on while the offense finds its way.
Can this team get a reasonable return on their investments at the safety position?
The Seahawks have $17.4 million in cap space allocated to Quandre Diggs and Jamal Adams this season.
They have $36.2 million in 2023 and $38.8 million in 2024 lined up for the pair.
When you add in the draft picks sent to acquire Adams in trade, you have a massive outlay by the team at the safety position.
For such a large investment, the return so far has been underwhelming.
While these two have brought the occasional highlight-worthy play, the $109 million in contracts the team has given them dictates that their play needs to ascend to something closer to consistently game-changing in order to get maximum return.
The exhilaration and forward momentum felt by fans when Quandre Diggs was first acquired in 2019 slowed to a crawl when the Seahawks acquired Adams and were blitzing him heavily in early 2020. Diggs’ job had been minimized from impact player, flying around and delivering timely hits and defending passes, to a safety net – being asked to stretch and cover the entire deep part of the field. The team badly struggled to adapt to this new evolution. The defensive line and corners could not give the safety tandem any consistent support and Diggs’ effectiveness was dramatically reduced.
Adams has a very long way to go to fulfill his promise. In 2020, the team went out of their way to create blitzing opportunities for him. In 2021, they completely shifted gears and had him play predominantly away from the box. They cut his blitzing in half and rarely designed the free looks for him we saw so often in 2020.
The results were predictable. He went from setting an NFL record for sacks for a defensive back to recording no sacks at all.
Both seasons ended prematurely for Adams with shoulder injuries, a poor PFF score and with as many lowlights as highlights.
Can this new defensive staff solve this puzzle? Or will a third consecutive season of re-shaping Adams’ responsibilities just be more gas on the fire of this rapidly declining investment?
A third season concluding in similar fashion would spell the end of Adams’ time in Seattle. The Seahawks can cut or trade him June 1, 2023 and pick up $11 million in cap room. There will be a $21.3 million dead cap hit but after three seasons it would be time to admit that the trade has not worked and move on.
Meanwhile, the question remains, can the coaching staff utilize this pairing with creative packages and movement, while keeping the defense balanced and yet unpredictable?
That seems like a lot to ask. There is some optimism though with a fresh perspective from the coaching staff and some pass rush talent the team has added.
Can this defense get off the field?
Last season this defense led the NFL in most plays faced last year with 1,201. Even adjusted for 17 games, that is the highest number of snaps faced by an NFL team in years.
This is most certainly a function of the offense also having the fewest plays run in the NFL with 954.
Think about that. The defense on a weekly average faced 14.5 more plays than the offense. That is nearly two extra possessions every single game. Simply put, the offense’s inability to sustain drives placed a big burden on the defense.
We will get to the offensive challenges soon enough. But that does not absolve the defense of all responsibility.
Once again, the pass rush last year was abysmal. The Seahawks were in the bottom ten in the league in both sacks and pressures.
They were also in the bottom ten in takeaways generated.
They conceded an incredible 400 first downs on defense, just shy of the most in the NFL to the Jets at 401 first downs. Both of those teams ranked among the worst defensive seasons in years in this area.
But perhaps the worst stat of all is how they defended passes to the running backs.
Through sixteen games the Seahawks had conceded 1,038 yards passing to opponents’ running backs, far and away the worst number in the NFL in 2021.
How far and away? It was historically bad – the worst number since Pro Football Reference started tracking the stat in 2015.
Put it this way — the modern NFL record for receiving yards by a running back? Marshall Faulk with 1048 yards in 16 games in 1999. So, on average, the Seahawks defense conceded a prime-era Marshall Faulk number of passing yards every single week. No wonder they could not get off the field.
They must improve. It is the single-biggest area where they could gain ground in 2022.
They might as well tackle this problem head on. More than half of their opponents in 2022 feature a top-10 caliber pass catcher at the running back position.
Ken Norton had defensive lineman covering running backs at times. From everything Clint Hurtt has said, they appear to be going away from that model. It is entirely possible the biggest reason the Seahawks have moved towards more of a 3-4 alignment was to specifically address this one gigantic weakness.
If they can stem the tide and get off the field, it will be worth it. Even returning to just a league-average position in this area will provide some stability.
Can the team distribute the defensive snaps in a more effective way in 2022?
The Seahawks have produced some seriously head-scratching moments with their snap distribution in recent years, particularly on defense.
Just some examples from last season:
Week Two against the Titans: Rasheem Green and Benson Mayowa play 78% of the snaps on defense while Carlos Dunlap and Darrell Taylor get 30% and 26%. Alton Robinson makes a fantastic play, strip-sacking Ryan Tannehill and two plays later the Seahawks score a touchdown. Has he earned more snaps? Absolutely. Does he get more snaps? No. He plays a grand total of 18 snaps in the game, and the tired defense is shredded in the second half. After the game, Pete Carroll blamed the issue on ‘substitution challenges’ which if true, is an embarrassing admission for a professional football team.
Week Seven against the Steelers: The Seahawks are desperate for pass rush. Their prize young rusher Darrell Taylor is carted off the field with a scary-looking injury. Do they turn to their other young rusher, Alton Robinson for a jolt? No. Robinson records one measly snap on defense. Again, the Seahawks turn to Rasheem Green and Benson Mayowa for the bulk of snaps. They record one pressure and no sacks between them.
Ben Roethlisberger – probably the least mobile quarterback in the NFL – has a consistently clean pocket and the Seahawks had no defensive answers despite taking the game to overtime.
Week Eight against the Saints: Darrell Taylor is a precautionary scratch. Again, Benson Mayowa logs 78% of the snaps while Robinson and Dunlap only get half that amount at 39% each. Mayowa has very little impact with zero pressures or sacks as the Seahawks only pressure Jameis Winston in 17% of plays.
Are you sensing a pattern here? Incapable veterans are being played ahead of talented but unproven youngsters.
What did Benson Mayowa do to secure such a prominent role on the defense? A career part time player is all the sudden playing well above 70% of the team’s snaps in the most critical stretch of the season.
Did all those snaps provide good results? See for yourself. He ended 2021 with one sack, six pressures and a 59.4 PFF grade and is currently an unsigned free agent. He is the living embodiment of a replacement-level player.
You can practically draw a line from Mayowa’s 2021 individual performance to the defense’s performance overall. What’s more, you have a young player on a rookie contract in Alton Robinson that showed development in his rushing defense and real pass rush promise on a team starving for it and his snap percentage actually decreased in 2021.
What exactly was the benefit of that arrangement?
For this year the question is — can the defense find a good mix of playing the experienced veterans while getting the young players crucial development time? Or will we again witness veterans logging heavy snaps while potential defensive building blocks like Boye Mafe, Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson have their NFL experience curtailed?
Is Uchenna Nwosu this year’s version of Benson Mayowa, providing merely adequate play while simultaneously blocking younger players from developing?
The Seahawks have collected an impressive group of talented young cornerbacks. They also wisely covered themselves with veteran free agent signings to assure depth and experience is provided at the position. But will we witness Carroll once again opting for the comfort of experience and mediocre yet predictable play over the unknown of youth and talent at the position? It would not be surprising to see the veterans starting at all three corner spots Week One. But by Week Six or Seven, if future prospects like Tre Brown and Coby Bryant (and even raw but immensely gifted rookie Tariq Woolen) are not being worked into the mix, that is a serious problem.
Why? Artie Burns, Justin Coleman and Sydney Jones are all on one-year contracts. If they log the bulk of the snaps in 2022, there will be no confidence going into 2023 – likely when the rookie quarterback salary cap window opens – to know what they have back there. If the Seahawks do not have a firm grasp on what the future of the cornerback position holds by then, that would be a major mistake.
It could easily lead to a repeat of what we have seen in recent years – the Seahawks spend crucial cap dollars on veteran players for one-year contracts in the name of experience and stability, with Pete Carroll justifying it by reasoning that it is too risky to just hand the young players the job and with his ‘competition’ mantra combined with a strong desire for the security of having veterans on the field.
Can the Seahawks trade some predictability for long-term growth and development? Will they?
Can Pete Carroll develop trust in this defense?
With all these moving parts we discussed, it seems unlikely in the early going that he will make decisions based on confidence in the defense.
Pete Carroll has always been one of the most conservative coaches in the NFL in going for it on fourth downs. That may or may not change.
But what has changed? The number of times Pete elected to punt in the opponent’s territory. The Seahawks led the NFL in a very specific and telling stat — Michael Dickson punted 21 times inside the opposition’s 50-yard line.
For instance, the Seahawks twice chose to punt inside the 40-yard line in the Week Seven game against the Steelers, rather than go for it or attempt a long field goal try. Both times, Dickson and the special teams unit could not down the ball deep and it fell into the end zone for a touchback. The net gain on both was about 18-20 measly yards. On the first punt, the Seahawks intentionally took a 5-yard delay of game penalty to give Dickson more room. It did not help.
Were those decisions borne strictly out of an intuition that the defense could not make the stop? Not necessarily. The offense was having its own troubles. A hallmark of the 2021 Seahawks offense was regularly shooting themselves in the foot when in field goal range.
But given how spectacularly bad this defense was at forcing punts, that certainly played a large part in Pete Carroll’s thinking. This defense forced Pete Carroll into a posture of mistrust, and his decisions frequently evidenced that in 2021.
Perhaps the new coaching staff can give Pete more confidence, shape his perspective and help him move his needle from extremely conservative to slightly more aggressive.
It will be up to this defensive coaching staff and personnel to make decisions like that pay off though.
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