Rost: A hectic offseason drew attention away from questions that linger for Seahawks’ defense

Jul 2, 2021, 9:24 AM
Seahawks DC Ken Norton Jr., HC Pete Carroll...
The Seahawks' defense finished 2020 strong, but ranked 22nd in yards allowed. (Getty)

You’d be forgiven for thinking the biggest questions facing the Seahawks concerned Russell Wilson’s long-term future, or Shane Waldron’s new offense. (Actually, you might be right about that.)

Heaps: Why Seahawks’ pass defense will improve despite questions at CB

But a hectic, offense-focused offseason drew attention away from real questions that linger for Seattle’s defense – and if the Seahawks want to get back to a Super Bowl (answer: they do) they’ll need to iron those issues out before it costs them.

What went right for the defense in 2020?

Before we press the panic button: the sky isn’t falling when it comes to the Seahawks defense.

The good news last year started with a pair of trades, and both of those acquisitions are under contract this season.

First, there was the offseason addition of Jamal Adams. It remains to be seen whether or not the trade – the biggest of John Schneider’s tenure – will be the right one in the long run, but Adams immediately passed the eye test last summer. Seattle hadn’t been able to sniff the top-10 in the draft for years and, coverage concerns or not, the level of pure talent Adams brought was obvious from Day 1 against Atlanta.

At the midpoint of the season, the Seahawks made a second trade, sending backup center B.J. Finney and a seventh rounder to the Bengals for pass rusher Carlos Dunlap. Adams and Dunlap accounted for a combined 14.5 sacks and 46 pressures.

The second half sack totals were especially impressive. Seattle totaled 29 sacks in the final nine weeks of the season alone, which was one more than they recorded in all of 2019. They finished ranked 7th in sacks (46) after finishing 29th the year prior.

They also tightened up their coverage in the final third of the regular season. Beginning with their win over Philadelphia in Week 12, Seattle went a stretch of three consecutive weeks allowing under 200 passing yards and never allowed more than 269. They recorded at least one turnover in each of those games. Imagine having the first-half Seahawks offense during this same stretch, right?

What went wrong?

The Seahawks’ second-half stats for passing yards allowed were stellar and yet still did little to improve their overall standing in that area – that’s how bad they were to start the season. They finished 22nd in total defense and 31st against the pass. Seattle allowed 400 or more yards in each of the first seven weeks, including three contests where they surrendered 500 or more yards. It’s what we in the biz call “not ideal.” Most of the damage came through the air, where Seattle was on pace to shatter the league record for most passing yards allowed in a season. (They were a historically great unit, but consider that it took the 2013 Seahawks the first three weeks to surrender 440 passing yards combined.)

While the Seahawks defense was undeniably better in the second half of the season by almost every measure, but during that time they also faced a stretch of teams headed up by Carson Wentz, Colt McCoy, Sam Darnold, C.J. Beathard, and Dwayne Haskins, the five of whom accounted for a combined QBR of 42.4. To blame the defense’s second half improvement solely on the quality of opposing quarterbacks strips any nuance from what appeared to be real development, but also adds important context. Can they replicate that production in 2021, where there are no weeks-long stretches of weak competition?

Questions that linger

• How will the loss of veterans be felt?

Seattle will need to work through the loss of Jarran Reed, Shaquill Griffin and K.J. Wright. Regardless of whether those vets were deserving of extensions, they were three of the most productive players at their positions. Reed finished second on the team in sacks, while Griffin finished first in passes defended, and Wright finished second in combined tackles and first in tackles for loss.

• How will the cornerback group fare with so much untested talent?

No current Seahawks cornerback has made 16 starts in a season. To his credit, Tre Flowers has two season of 15 starts and will be able to help with the adjustment for incoming free agents Ahkello Witherspoon and Pierre Desir. DJ Reed may be the most talented of the bunch, but if he can stay healthy, 2021 would also be his first season as a full-time starter.

• Can 2020’s young defenders play up to their billing?

First-round pick Jordyn Brooks will have big shoes to fill in what’s been the Seahawks’ security blanket – the linebacker group – for the last several years. Potentially joining that group at SAM, or as a situational pass rusher, will be Darrell Taylor, who the Seahawks considered taking in the first round and ultimately selected in the second round. Head coach Pete Carroll raved about Taylor during rookie camp and minicamp, but fans have yet to see him take a snap in a Seahawks uniform. Frankly, Seattle could just use a draft win on defense; the pro bowlers to come from the Seahawks’ most recent draft classes have been on offense (DK Metcalf) or special teams (Michael Dickson). Shaquill Griffin (drafted in 2017) was the last defensive player selected to a Pro Bowl. Can a young Seahawks defender make his mark this season?

• Can Pete Carroll turn this around?

There are plenty of questions facing defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr., who found himself in the hot seat at the midway point of last season before Russell Wilson and the Seahawks offense fell off the tracks. But this is Pete Carroll’s defense. Consider this: If the Rams offense falls apart, chances are good Sean McVay will face more heat than Kevin O’Connell. Bad play calls and decisions on gameday are one thing; clear issues with scheme or persistent issues (like Seattle saw with last year’s coverage woes) fall to Carroll. The good news is that Carroll is a great defensive mind. Can he get this group figured out in time to take advantage of a championship window?

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Rost: A hectic offseason drew attention away from questions that linger for Seahawks’ defense