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O’Neil: Seahawks’ defense improves after alarming start in preseason win

The Seahawks bounced back from a rough opening drive on defense. (Getty)

Seattle’s defense improved.

That is the hope after the offseason additions. It was also the storyline for the Seahawks preseason opener against Denver.

Seahawks 22, Broncos 14: Recap | Photos | Stats

The Seahawks got better after surrendering 78 yards on Denver’s opening drive, which spanned 12 plays, getting the ball inside the Seattle 10 before settling for a field goal seven minutes into the season.

The Broncos’ offense went flat after that, managing only 85 yards on its next six possessions combined, and the Seahawks scored almost as many points (two) as it allowed (three) in that time.

This is going to get lost in the enthusiasm (understandably) generated by the second-half performances of quarterback Paxton Lynch and receiver Jazz Ferguson, and while those guys certainly helped themselves, they’re competing for spots on the active roster.

The trajectory of Seattle’s season, however, depends on the improvement of this defense or the lack thereof. That’s what made the start of Thursday’s game a little bit concerning.

The Broncos converted two of their three third-down opportunities on their first drive, including an alarming 50-yard run by Broncos running back Royce Freeman. Seattle’s defense appeared to be crossed up by pre-snap motion as cornerback Tre Flowers followed a receiver across the formation only to have Denver run right at the spot that was vacated.

Things tightened up after that, though, and Seattle didn’t allow another run of more than 10 yards. There was only one completion of more than 20 yards, too, before the final quarter when both teams were reaching into the nether regions of their depth charts.

This being the preseason, though, context is important. Joe Flacco – Denver’s new starting quarterback – left the game after the opening possession.

But it’s not like the Seahawks were at full strength, either.

Linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright – Seattle’s only defensive players who were in town before 2017 – did not play. Neither did defensive tackles Jarran Reed and Poona Ford. The Seahawks held their own up front even without those anchors on the interior of Seattle’s defensive line.

This was a showcase for some of the younger players who will determine whether this defense is actually improved. Guys like rookie Marquise Blair, who did not start but showed himself to be a very sure tackler in his preseason debut. Ugo Amadi looked explosive, too, but that was largely on special teams.

The corners were more secure, too. Third-year player Shaquill Griffin was aggressive, making a play on the ball when he was thrown at in the first quarter, while Flowers stood up to the challenge of a first-half fade.

More than anything, Seattle played a punishing style of defense. The Seahawks’ defense played with some pepper. Rookies like Blair. And linebacker Cody Barton. And veteran Mychal Kendricks.

Will Seattle’s defense be better this season? Too soon to say, but there was no doubt it got better over the course of Thursday night’s game, culminating with Akeem King’s quarterback pressure that led to Jamar Taylor’s interception of Drew Locke to seal Seattle’s 22-14 victory.

The Good

Seattle’s special teams stood out for all the right reasons. It started with the opening kickoff when second-year linebacker Shaquem Griffin smote Denver’s Devontae Booker before he could even reach the 20-yard line. Receiver Keenan Reynolds had a 34-yard kickoff return later in the quarter and cornerback Neiko Thorpe chipped in with great punt coverage. Yes, kicker Jason Myers missed a field-goal attempt, but it was a 56-yard attempt and he had plenty of leg on it. Nothing to worry about – yet. Especially after he made a 55-yarder with 40 seconds left in the first half.

The Bad

Quarterback Geno Smith was Seattle’s second-leading rusher in the first half, which was a symptom of a bigger issue. Too often he held the ball too long, completed only three of the nine passes he did throw and the longest completion was a screen pass to Rashaad Penny. As far as opening statements go, it was significantly less than overwhelming. Paxton Lynch, Smith’s competition to back up Russell Wilson, looked much better when called on in relief.

The Ugly

George Fant suffered a sprained ankle in the second quarter when he had an opponent roll up on the back of his right leg. He did not return to the game.

Follow Danny O’Neil on Twitter.

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