State of Defense: Defensive Primer for the 2021 Season
Sep 14, 2021, 7:55AM PDT
Follow us on Twitter @SeaFlockBlog
While other teams made splashy signings and high draft picks this off season, the Seahawks defense remains nearly fully intact from the 2020 NFL season. The Flock lost veteran defensive starters Griffin, Reed and Wright this off season, yet were able to retain all of its young core talent. We’ll start off with the most dreaded group of all for the year: the corners.
Very few positions have remained in good or stable condition since the glory days of the LOB. The cornerback position is unfortunately still not one of them.
● Following the injury to Dunbar last season, DJ Reed stepped in to fill the gap and outplayed expectations. Pete will now entrust the ex-49er to start the season in the right corner slot. During his 8 starts last season, the emergence of Reed’s coverage ability being above average had fans drooling with excitement. After posting a 6.8 average depth of target and 64.4% completion percentage, that excitement proved not to be a misfire. Despite his short stature (5’9”), Reed has that other thing that Pete loves in his corners: good tackling. Of his 62 combined tackles, he managed to garner a 3.1% missed tackle rate in 2020. While his ability to be able to hold his own against receivers like Julio Jones and Davante Adams remains to be seen, I can rest peacefully knowing his cap hit is under $1 million.
● After excitement in the offseason for acquiring a supposedly above average corner, cutting ties with Witherspoon so early was initially a head scratcher. When further examined however, Witherspoons contract coupled with his spotty play proved to be too great to risk. His preseason and practices had been muddled with questionable play and ability. Seattle saved itself a big chunk of cap space, essentially trading Witherspoon's 4 million dollar 1 year deal for newly signed Sidney Jones’ 1.75 million 1 year deal.
● While Sidney Jones isn’t exactly the savior this position group needed, he isn’t a slouch either. The 5th year former 2nd round pick spent time with the Eagles and Jaguars, notching 14 total starts (6 with the Jags last year). Despite his short tape length, Jones was graded a 71.3 coverage grade for the 2020 season by PFF (0.1 below DJ Reed). When targeted, Jones gave up a 57.9% completion percentage and 3-2 TD/Int ratio. Regardless of his recent arrival, Jones could see significant playing time early on. I mean, are we supposed to believe Flowers and Reed are just going to lockdown Jones and Brown all game next week?
● The thought of Tre Flowers being the starting corner again has most 12’s ready to claw their eyes out, and rightfully so. After 37 starts, there seems to be nothing that remains to be seen with the 3rd year safety turned corner. His 51.4 overall PFF grade along with a 105.7 passer rating and 77.5 completion percentage for 2020 should have been enough to see his playtime reduced. Yet regardless of his many, many flaws, Pete loves Flowers like a son and will not give in to naysayers. While it’s true he showed flashes of competency last season covering Hopkins 1-on-1, it seems that’s all Flowers can be: a failing experiment with flashes of greatness.
● Unsurprisingly, Tre Brown was unable to beat out any veterans for their starting spot this off season. The speedy 4.4s corner from Oklahoma, who currently sits on IR, might see some field time this season with the limited cornerback depth.
● Freshly signed Jets corner Bless Austin, has had his fair share of playing time during his two year career, albeit with the Jets. Austin will have to show the talent that got him drafted in 2019 if he hopes to see playing time, and not be burned when given it.
● Young corners John Reid, Mike Jackson and Gavin Heslop will hopefully be able to ride the bench for the majority of the year while they grow and develop. Unless of course those named above suffer injuries or a decline in play. Fingers crossed.
With the league average cap hit of $11-12 million for the cornerback position, we’re at the very least not overpaying mediocre talent. With $11 million in cap space heading into the season, we could see an addition to this young group sooner rather than later. We must all collectively pray the defensive line can generate enough pressure early, otherwise I fear we will see a repeat of last season's start. Oh the horror.
After the Raiders signed longtime fan favorite KJ Wright, Brooks and Barton will be starting with the longtime Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan. Big(Bobby). Baller(Brooks). Brand (Barton).
● There isn’t a whole lot to say about Wagner who had himself another statistically stellar year to add to his HOF resume. With the loss of fellow star linebacker Wright and the fresh legs of Barton and Brooks, it wouldn’t be outlandish to predict season highs across the board for Wagner. While his age will start to be a concern in the coming years, the 2nd overall linebacker per PFF has shown no signs slowing down.
● For his 367 snaps of the 2020 season, Brooks blitzed just 8 times. Fans knew Brooks wasn’t stellar in coverage when he was the teams first round pick of the 2020 NFL draft. What was impressive about Brooks was his ability to defend the run. During his senior college season, Brooks recorded 20 tackles for a loss and 2 fumble recoveries. If given the opportunity to be further involved in blitz and stunt schemes this year, the 2nd year linebacker could use it as a crutch while he develops and grows his coverage abilities.
● Flashes of Barton's aggressive play have been on display within his 2 seasons in the league. Though it has been on special teams for the most part, Barton certainly has the size and speed required of the position. His game tape at this point in time is rather short, having only played a total of 265 snaps on defense in total.
● Kirven, who currently sits on IR, will likely see playing time quickly as the linebacker room currently rests with the names above. Having not started in a game is a tad worrisome, but everyone has to start somewhere right?
● The trio of Rhattigan, Donkor and recently acquired Muse could also see their positions from the practice squad promoted temporarily if the football injury gods choose to bring chaos to the locker room. All 3 have yet to take their first NFL snap.
With the youngest linebacker core the Seahawks have had in a half decade, Wagner must start to feel it in his bones. All jokes aside, we knew this position group would have to bring in fresh talent eventually. The incredible tandem of Wright and Wagner in Seattle won’t be forgotten, thankfully at least the former was retained to help lead the young pups into battle.
After speedy departures from Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor, who would have thought the Seahawks would have not one, but two pro bowl level defenders so soon? Thankfully the tandem of Diggs and Adams, while nowhere near the legends of old, will return healthy and with a full offseason of practice to fuel their hunger.
● Whispers of Diggs demanding a new contract could’ve proved troublesome but the front office seemed to work their magic to satisfy the pro bowler. Diggs, very much deserving of a pay raise, has indeed made a name for himself in Seattle. In his 21 games as a Seahawks, he’s notched 8 interceptions which puts him at 10th most in the NFL since 2019. Diggs will need to continue his growth this season and improve his 2020 season's 92.7 passer rating and 66.7% completion percentage to avoid a repeat of last year's free passing real estate against Seattle.
● Adams has been cryptically hinting at 5+ picks all offseason, even writing it onto his arm cast. After his new league leading contract extension, Adams finished the year with a 62.7 overall grade on PFF. Not awful, but by no means good enough for the now highest paid safety. His 98 blitzes, the most by any Seahawk, reaped rewards for the defense with 10 hurries, 26 pressures, 11 TFLs and 9.5 sacks. Oh and all that in just 12 games. Given a full season of playing time, it seems likely that if similarly utilized, Adams could rise to the top of the leaderboards as a pass rusher in 2021.
● With injuries to Adams in 2020, Ryan Neal was tasked with the first four starts of his career. He played surprisingly well getting off to a hot start with 2 interceptions in back to back weeks. Of all Seattle safeties, Neal recorded the lowest opposing passer rating with 72.1 having played 393 defensive snaps. Though he saw a snap reduction once Adams returned from injury, look for Neal to get playing time this season filling in for Adams when needed.
● Ugo Amadi and Marquise Blair are set to have the most playing time of their young careers thanks to the question marked corner room. While Amadi has the lead over Blair in snaps played (627), he allowed an 86.8 rating and 73% completion rate to opposing quarterbacks last year. While Amadi has his ups and downs in coverage, he has still seen more field time than Blair whose gruesome ACL injury may limit his snap count early on. Aside from their flaws and past injuries, both safeties had themselves highlight worthy pre-season moments. While neither will likely start any games off the bat, if last year's NFL season taught anything, is that injuries are annoyingly right around the corner.
● Nigel Warrior was recently off waivers from a loaded Ravens DB room and iis currently listed as the 3rd string strong safety on the depth chart. Warrior, having played out his 5 years in the NCAA with Tennessee, is on the IR list at the moment. Warrior will likely remain on the practice squad for most if not all of the season while he learns from his vets. Though, it is notable that Warrior got rave reviews from some of the more esteemed DBs in Baltimore.
Of all position groups, I personally feel safest with this one. Whether they will effectively be able to aid the ailing corner room however remains to be seen.
After an embarrassingly disappointing 9 total team sacks in 2019, the big boys came to play in 2020. 30.5 of the 46 total sacks (7th in the league) came from the defensive line. With all 2020 players minus Reed returning to the front, this young group seems to be due for a great season all around.
● Everyone was ecstatic at the resigning of Dunlap after the boost he gave the defensive line in 2020. Dunlap played well quickly on a new defense, for the first time in his career, he was tasked with playing LOLB. This could be the reason next gen stats ranked Dunlap 46th out of 47 for pass rush win rate last season despite his 12.6% pressure rate after joining the team. The 32 year old should provide worthy experience and ability this season to an otherwise very young group.
● While Collier's stats didn’t pop off the page in his 2nd year, he proved to be a reliable contributor in the defensive rotations. After a big improvement from his rookie season, Collier found himself starting in all 16 games giving him invaluable experience in his growth as a young player. With the competition on the defensive line this year, Look for Collier to line up in both the DT and left or right DE.
Edit: LJ Collier was a healthy scratch in Week 1. Surprising, given the lack of depth at DT and that LJ was expected to slot in at 3-tech.
● Woods, Ford & Mone will be the first line of defense against the run this season. While they certainly don’t get the prettiest of stats, these boys will be paramount in winning the battle in the trenches. Of the three, Ford's ability to defend the run shines brightest. His 6 TFLs last season were enough to match Aaron Donals total for 2020. While Ford doesn’t have the prototypical height at 5’11, Mone and Woods more than make up for it coming in at 6’3 & 6’4 respectively. With the additions of Nkemdiche and Hyder, the experience these three have should provide them with the playing time but don’t be surprised to see heavy rotations at the DT spot this season.
● Darrell Taylor will finally make his long awaited debut for Seattle. After being frighteningly reminiscent of the Malik Mcdowell situation, Taylor had himself a strong pre-season that showed promise, with Carroll stating Taylor undoubtedly had the best camp of any Seahawk. With the line being as crowded as it is, Taylor is set to see field time at the SAM linebacker position when called upon. During his senior season at Tennessee, the 2nd round pick put up 8.5 sacks and 10 TFLs in 13 games. If he’s able to replicate even a fraction of his college success this season, Taylor will be a trustworthy candidate to see further playing time on the edge.
● Green, Mayowa & Robinson were part of the trio of unsung heroes that catapulted the line to recognition last year. While they didn’t necessarily have page popping stats, the three edge rushers combined for 12 sacks and 14 TFLs. Look for them to be integral in creating another great year of pass rushing.
● Coming off a career year in San Francisco with 8.5 sacks, Kerry Hyder was an excellent pickup this offseason. Following the departure of the first team all pro Deforest Buckner and injury to former defensive rookie of the year Nick Bosa, Hyder was relentless in his pursuit of quarterbacks in 2020. Aside from the impressive sack total, Hyder had 32 pressures and 13 hurries to go along with playing 70% of the team's defensive snaps. Snaps which split at 463 pass rushing and 259 run defending. Something about the 49ers handing us gems for nickels on the dime just brings incomparable joy. Hyder will likely see his playing time get mixed in as both an edge rusher and interior defender.
● On the practice squad ready to be promoted on a day's notice are Nkemdiche, Hewitt and Adams. While Nkemdiche has struggled staying healthy for his career, the former 1st round pick had himself a great year in 2018 with the Cardinals recording 4.5 sacks and 9 TFLs. Hewitt and Adams have both yet to take an NFL snap and will likely remain on the practice squad to learn and develop their craft this year.
This defensive front will have to perform well if there is any hope of holding opposing teams to under 30 points this season. It will start and end with the big boys up front, and for the first time in a long time, I feel confident in them.
Coaching and Scheme
All arrows point towards Ken Norton Jr and Pete Carroll utilizing their flagship 4-3 under base package this year. After successfully utilizing key additions like Adams to create a hyper modernized blitz and stunt scheme, the only hindrance of Nortons defense will be the corners.
● Despite the cries of fans for the firing of 3rd year Seahawks defensive coordinator Norton, he has been trusted by Pete to return. When looking at the first and second halves of the 2020 season, Norton showed improvement in adjusting the defense and plugging in backups for injuries. In Weeks 1-8, the Seahawks D ranked 19th in EPA/Play, but jumped to 9th in the 2nd half of 2020 and ranked 13th overall when adjusting for garbage time. Whether the improvement was due to player talent or good coaching will be easy to see early on this year. Following the firing of Schottenheimer this offseason after two years, it wouldn’t be crazy to assume that Norton could see a departure from Seattle if he fails to deliver this year. During his 3 year tenure with the Seahawks, Norton’s defense ranks 12th in garbage time adjusted EPA/play. Boom or bust Ken.
● Joining the defensive coaches this year is a familiar face in Deshawn Shead. The former member of the LOB will get his shot to coach the defensive backs this year. Hopefully coach Shead can bring some of that aggressive energy of the good old days to the skinny cornerback room.
Put together, this should be an improved defense from the first half nightmare of 2020. Despite the loss of key veteran starters, the additions that Schnieder has made over the past 3 years have finally begun to gel and learn to play together. With an entire offseason of actual physical practice instead of zoom meetings, I am hopeful that this defense will turn a corner this year.