Can Russell Wilson and a Rebuilt D Get Back to the Playoffs? 10 Thoughts on the Seattle Seahawks

Can two new coordinators help Pete Carroll, Russell Wilson and Co. get back to the playoffs?
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With the NFL season just a few weeks away, Andy Benoit is previewing every NFL team in reverse order of last season’s finish. Up today: the Seattle Seahawks, who finished 9–7 in 2017.

1. Coordinator Brian Schottenheimer was hired to give this offense something it hasn’t had the last few years: an identity. Obviously, it will stem from Russell Wilson, which is why it must start with the ground game. Wilson’s off-schedule tendencies create sensational plays even on snaps where the defense has won, and the Seahawks wisely have built “scramble drill” options into all their pass plays. Still, you can’t build a consistent passing attack around off-schedule plays. Last season the Seahawks were held to under 230 yards passing 10 times, including three times under 140 yards. The Seahawks have long been great with man coverage-beating designs, like rubs, crossers and wheel routes, where the play’s timing is less defined. But beating zone coverage almost always requires timing and rhythm, which is sometimes hard for the 5’11” Wilson to establish given his sight line limitations from the pocket.

When Wilson is outside the pocket, his vision is second to none. So is his touch passing, as well as his scrambling. Out-of-pocket pass designs come from your running game. So does play-action, which often gets a QB deeper in his dropback, making it easier to see downfield. Seattle’s offense was much more consistent from 2012-14, when it ran through Marshawn Lynch. That’s not just because Lynch was great, it’s also because that approach better fits Wilson.

2. One of football’s biggest myths is that the Seahawks have an untalented offensive line. It’s actually one of the NFL’s highest pedigreed O-lines. Left tackle Duane Brown is a four-time Pro Bowler and former first-round pick who makes $8.9 million a year. Left guard Ethan Pocic was drafted in Round 2. So was center Justin Britt. Newly signed right guard D.J. Fluker is a former first-round pick. Right tackle Germaine Ifedi is another first-rounder. It’s been a high-pedigreed line for years. Guards James Carpenter (now a Jet) and Luke Joeckel (unsigned) were first-round picks. Left tackle Russell Okung was a No. 6 overall pick. You can count on one hand the number of teams who have invested so much up front. And so blame for the line’s perpetual struggles should go to employees in collared shirts. In the crudest terms, either GM John Schneider is bad at picking linemen or seven-year O-line coach Tom Cable was bad at coaching them. Tacitly, head coach Pete Carroll gave credence to the latter notion, firing Cable this offseason and filling his place with another veteran assistant, 63-year-old Mike Solari.

A turnaround job in Seattle would hallmark Solari’s legacy. It won’t be easy. Brown wavers in pass-blocking. Pocic must develop a stronger lower body. Fluker has always been up-and-down—that’s why he was available to sign. And Ifedi has a bad tendency to open his body too much toward the sideline in pass protection, which gets him beat outside. There’s also the Russell Wilson factor. Blocking for his sandlot methods is very different than blocking for the traditional dropback ways for which most linemen have been taught.

3. Wilson’s legs are one of the NFL’s trickiest weapons to scheme against. One result is the defense’s reluctance to attack Seattle’s iffy O-line with stunts and blitzes, less those tactics leave wider scrambling lanes. Another is the defense spying Wilson whenever it plays man coverage. This is especially true in hurry-up and crunch-time situations, where Wilson becomes a more aggressive scrambler. When you spy the QB, you either sacrifice a pass rusher or a help-pass-defender—tactics that put more burden on your cornerbacks.

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4. With Chris Carson coming off a severe leg injury, the hope is that first-round rookie Rashaad Penny becomes Running Back No. 1. But recent history says the Seahawks will fall into a tailback rotation, and if they do, it’s important that C.J. Prosise and J.D. McKissic get carries, not just passes. Both are mismatch-makers through the air, but if Schottenheimer motions the back out wide in empty sets as regularly as predecessor Darrell Bevell did, that back essentially becomes just a fourth wide receiver, negating the matchup problem he was brought in to create.

5. Doug Baldwin has tremendous body control, especially in his feet, which are springy and provide crisp stop-start redirect ability. That’s why he’s the NFL’s best underneath slot receiver. Not to say he’s only this. Baldwin is great on wheel, fade and “over” routes—all patterns that attack vertically toward the sideline.

6. Pete Carroll wants to get back to basics on defense. He fired coordinator Kris Richard, one of the game’s more acclaimed young coaches, and replaced him with Ken Norton Jr., one of its more maligned. Norton, who was dismissed from the DC post in Oakland last November, coached Seattle’s linebackers from 2010-14. Richard had expanded Seattle’s traditional Cover 3 zone scheme, introducing more Cover 2, blitzes, blitz fronts and man coverage. Norton employed all these tactics in Oakland, but it’s hard to envision him not scaling the Seahawks down to their traditional Cover 3, especially given the secondary’s downgraded personnel.

7. How that secondary does could come down to its right corner. It should be familiar starter Byron Maxwell’s job to lose, but don’t be surprised if there’s a training camp-long battle here. On the left side, second-year man Shaquill Griffin has the physical technique to be the type of stopper Richard Sherman was. Whether he has Sherman’s uncanny ball skills remains to be seen. In the slot, Justin Coleman is coming off a surprisingly stellar season. At strong safety, Bradley McDougald isn’t Kam Chancellor, but he’s better than people realize. And, behind him, Earl Thomas (who is currently holding out) is still the NFL’s rangiest centerfielder.

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8. Thomas’s range is a piece to the small puzzle that has most defined Seattle’s defensive greatness: speed up the middle. Thomas and inside linebackers Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright can get to almost anywhere, and their coverage prowess, particularly in those familiar Cover 3 zones, is unmatched. As long as these three remain, this D has a chance to be formidable.

9. Whether this defense can again be elite depends on the front four’s ability to disrupt the quarterback. That’s what allows the back seven to play fast. The D-line’s three top players from last year, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett and Sheldon Richardson (who was quietly fantastic), are gone. Replacing them will take an assortment of rotational guys and full maturation from two young stars, 25-year-old nose tackle Jarran Reed and 25-year-old end/tackle Frank Clark. Reed has superb feet for a 306-pounder. The Seahawks drafted him as a run-clogger in the 2016 second-round and discovered he’s also a disruptive nickel pass rusher. (That’s like hiring a house cleaner and finding out they also cook.) Clark’s feet are even better than Reed’s. In fact, they might be better than anyone’s. His combination of initial quickness and closing speed are incredible. If he fulfills his potential in this, his contract year, he’ll draw around an $18 million franchise tag next year or one of the league’s richest defensive deals.

10. Seattle has become a Mecca for disappointing former first-round pass rushers. On the roster is ex-Dolphin Dion Jordan (Pick 3 in 2013; he is expected back from a knee injury in October), ex-Brown Barkevious Mingo (Pick 6 in 2013) and ex-Eagle Marcus Smith (Pick 26 in 2014). It’s hard to envision this retooled pass rush succeeding without one of these men stepping up.

BOTTOM LINE: They can call it whatever they want in Seattle ... it's an obvious rebuilding year. Expect the usual ups and downs that come with it. 

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