Seahawks takeaways: What DC Ken Norton Jr. revealed about his defense
The Seahawks are roughly two weeks away from their first game of the season in Atlanta against former Seattle defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s Falcons, and after a poor showing in 2019, all eyes are on the defense to get things turned around in 2020.
One of the key figures in improving the Seahawks’ defense is Ken Norton Jr., who is entering his third year as defensive coordinator in Seattle. He spoke with members of the media on Friday and discussed different aspects of his defense, including which positions are still up for grabs as training camp winds down. Here’s what he said.
Three starting spots up for grabs
When asked about how new cornerback Quinton Dunbar has done in his first camp as a Seahawk as well as how two-year starter Tre Flowers has reacted to the competition, Norton not only discussed how those two are doing, but also revealed that those two are battling for one of three available starting jobs on the defense.
“You see competition in the linebacking group with K.J. (Wright) and (rookie first-round pick Jordyn) Brooks (for the weakside linebacker spot), you see competition up front with L.J. (Collier) and Rasheem (Green at the five-technique defensive end spot) and then in the secondary you see it with Dunbar and Tre,” Norton said. “They are really rising to the level of competition and competition always brings the best out of you. Tre has really come a long way and he’s gotten better and he’s sticky and doing really well with his technique and Dunbar as well. We’re learning his ways, but so far he’s made a really good first impression.”
Norton didn’t go into detail about the WILL linebacker position or the five-technique defensive end competition, but he did say what will ultimately decide who starts outside at cornerback opposite Pro Bowler Shaquill Griffin.
“Just consistency. We need to throw a lot of deep balls to the guys and see how they handle the deep balls, if they’re comfortable with the ball being in the air and if they panic. Penalties, ball’s in the air can you make the play or do you panic and hit the receiver?” Norton said. “… And then being sticky and having great vision and figuring things out. A lot of times as coaches we can give you the plays, we can give you the defense but then you’ve got to go on the field and figure things out and if you can go out on the field and make sense of it all and make plays at the same time, those type of things (are what) we like to see our cagey veteran corners do.”
Blair shining in new role
One position that Norton didn’t say had competition for the lead role was nickel cornerback, which appears to be second-year defensive back Marquise Blair’s job heading into the season. Blair, who was drafted as a safety, has made the transition to nickel corner and is apparently showing he can handle the job. He had two interceptions in Wednesday’s mock game as well.
“He’s been the, I wouldn’t say surprise because we drafted him pretty high and we scouted him in college and we knew what he was capable of, but now he’s been able to understand his role, be put in a position to really master what that position nickel takes as far as technique and the ability to rush, the ability to cover in man coverage,” Norton said.
Blair was known as a big hitter in college and he showed that both in the preseason and regular season in 2019, but Norton says his ability to lock up opposing receivers one-on-one really helps the defense.
“He makes us a really good man coverage team because he’s able to with his length, his strength and he’s able to really cover really tight and sticky and he’s a good rusher,” he said. ” … If we have a really good nickel who can cover that slot, he really makes us a good man coverage team and a good blitzing team from that nickel spot. So watching his emergence and development, it’s going to really make us a better team in the secondary along with (starting safeties) Quandre (Diggs) and Jamal (Adams), all those guys working together is really good for the Seahawks.”
“One of the best secondaries we’ve had in a long time”
Blair’s emergence as a more than capable nickel corner is big for a defense that only played with five defensive backs roughly 30% of the time in 2019, but the safety play may be the biggest area of improvement from 2019 to 2020.
The Seahawks acquired Diggs from Detroit ahead of the trade deadline and he was a defensive standout at free safety, but now he is partnered with good friend and All-Pro Adams, who the Seahawks got from the Jets for multiple high picks and two-year starting safety Bradley McDougald. The combination of Diggs and Adams has Norton extremely excited.
“Quandre, really, really happy with his camp so far. He’s really calmed the secondary and the safety position,” Norton said. “He and Jamal are working really, really good together … Quandre is an outstanding ballplayer. He’s smart, he’s fast, he knows how to think on the run, he’s a playmaker, he’s a gamer and he practices well and the guys like him, guys like playing with him. He’s been certainly a very good addition and this is probably going to be one of the best secondaries we’ve had in a long time.”
With Adams, who will start at strong safety, the Seahawks get a player who did a little bit of everything for the Jets last year, lining up as a box safety, linebacker, pass rusher and more. He also brings some energy to the defense as a whole, Norton said.
“This kid is a fireball. He’s smart, he loves ball, he loves practice, he loves to compete. He’s Seahawk defense,” Norton said. “He fits really good here. He’s aggressive and he brings a certain swagger to your group as far as being aggressive and tough and strong minded and he’s been a great addition to the group. He’s fitting in well and I’m really glad he’s on our team.”
State of the linebackers
Brooks and Wright are competing for the starting WILL spot, which has been Wright’s for nearly a decade, and middle linebacker belongs, of course, to perennial All-Pro Bobby Wagner, but how is the rest of that room shaping up? Norton gave some thoughts on many of his linebackers, including at the strongside (SAM) spot, which may have a bit of a surprise as far as who the backup is.
“Shaquem (Griffin) has been really solid for us, showing up every day,” Norton, a three-time Pro Bowl linebacker, said. “He’s full of energy and a lot of speed, he is so fast, so we’re really trying to find different ways to utilize his speed. Right now, he’s the backup SAM linebacker with Bruce (Irvin) and he’s using his ability to get around the corner. He also plays third down with his ability to rush (the passer) like we had last year. But again, he’s continuing to grow. I really like his emergence, he’s going to help on third down and he’s our backup SAM.”
Last year, rookie Cody Barton saw extended time at the SAM position, but it appears his role is elsewhere, though he has impressed Norton thus far.
“Cody’s a really good football player, he plays really hard, really smart,” Norton said. “He’s having a really good camp. Really, really impressed with him, excited about his development. He’s going in the right direction.”
Norton also said fellow 2019 rookie linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven has the “same toughness” and “same smarts” as Barton, but noted that group has perhaps he best depth on the entire roster.
“All the guys have their work cut out for them,” he said.
Starting at SAM will be Irvin, who returns to the Seahawks after four years away. He was the team’s 2012 first-round pick and according to both Norton and head coach Pete Carroll, he’s the best SAM linebacker they’ve had in Seattle and he will slide into that role once again.
“Just his development, his toughness, his ability to set the edge, he’s probably one of the most amazing athletes you’ve seen on defense,” Norton said. “… Right now, it’s really good to have him here. He’s at a really good place in his career and his life right now and we have really high expectations for him to really be a leader, a playmaker and a pass rusher for us.”
And of course, any conversation about the linebackers has to include thoughts on this year’s first-round pick, who may be unseating the veteran Wright at WILL.
‘He looks like a linebacker, he runs like a linebacker, he acts like a guy who’s hungry and wants to play,” Norton said. “Really pleased with his development so far. If you saw the scrimmage the other day, he really showed up well in the scrimmage. He’s really learning how to play football at our level. He’s really fortunate to be among some of the best in the league in Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright, who has been a model of consistency in high-level performance over the last nine or ten years of his career.”
Norton said that while Brooks has “a lot of growing to do,” learning from Wagner and Wright will go a long way both this year and the rest of his career.
“It’s important for a young pro to set a really good, strong foundation early in his career so he can last and have a really good, strong career and he’s been very fortunate to be around the right people,” he said.
With Brooks, Norton sees a guy who shines when the pressure is on.
“He’s physical and a lot of times you want a guy with speed to play fast and then you want a guy to really be able to show up and think on the run and he’s really good in the mind, really good in carrying what we teach him in the meeting rooms over to the field and he’s a gamer,” he said. “Some guys look good in practice and then the games show up and they kind of get intimidated. Not this kid. Game shows up, lights turn on, he shows up and that’s really good to see at this age.”
Listen/watch Norton’s press conference at this link.