Throughout the 2021 season, disaster has struck at every corner for the Seahawks and has proved unyielding. As such, the injury bug has reared its ugly head once more, this time taking safety Jamal Adams for the remainder of the year due to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. Adams is set to have season-ending reconstructive surgery in the near future, less than a year removed from having a similar procedure on the same labrum.
The news brings an end to a strong second season in Seattle for the three-time All-Pro selection. After signing a four-year, $70 million contract to make him the league's highest-paid safety back in August, Adams has played in each of the team's 12 games up to this point in the year. While the first half of that slate was filled with more downs than ups for him and the defense as a whole, he played a major role in the unit's second-half turnaround.
Although he failed to record a single sack in the followup to his record-breaking season in that department, he currently sits third on the team with 87 combined tackles, tied-fourth with five pass deflections, second with a pair of interceptions and tied-second with four tackles-for-loss, per Pro Football Reference. Additionally, Pro Football Focus put him down for the second-best opponent passer rating on the team with a mark of 69.9, along with the third-best completion percentage allowed of 57.8 percent.
Stylistically and philosophically speaking, Adams' absence should cause a pretty noticeable shift in approach for the Seahawks. His versatility and overall talent has allowed defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. to dial up more middle of field open looks such as Cover 2, Cover 4 and Cover 6, which the unit has found great success in. According to SIS Football, without Adams on the field, the Seahawks' usage of man coverage drops from 24 percent to nine percent, while their blitz and sack rates fall from 36 percent to 18 percent and seven percent to three percent, respectively.
Simply put: the "next man up" in this situation, Ryan Neal, has massive shoes to fill and the defense as a whole should operate in a different manner with him at strong safety. But this is a spot he's been in before, having stepped in for Adams from Weeks 4-8 of the 2020 season while the incumbent starter nursed a groin injury.
During that time, Neal won the hearts of Seattle's fanbase and coaching staff with 28 combined tackles, four pass deflections and two interceptions. His efforts earned him an occasional role in dime packages once Adams returned, which has expanded in 2021. After contemplating retirement prior to getting his opportunity a year ago, Neal has been averaging 16.6 snaps this year. That number, of course, is bound to go up as he steps into the starting lineup full-time for the final five games of the regular season.
Another number that will inflate in the coming weeks is Seattle's usage of Cover 3. Through the first 12 weeks of the year, it ranks fourth in the NFL with a 44.1 percent Cover 3 call rate (381 of 863), per TruMedia. Last year, when Adams played, that number hovered around the same area at 45.3 percent. But with Neal in the lineup against the Dolphins, Vikings, Cardinals and 49ers, Norton's employment of the scheme shot up a near full 10 points to 55 percent. In 2021, that would rank second behind only the Raiders (64.7 percent).
If anything, for the simple fact of stepping out of their comfort zone, this could create some issues for the Seahawks. It puts more of an emphasis on linebackers Bobby Wagner and Jordyn Brooks, both of whom have been inconsistent in coverage throughout the year. Opposing teams will put them to the test with a healthy dose of dig and seam routes.
Neal will also spend a considerable amount of time in the box, which he's done quite a bit of in his limited role this season (91 of 150 snaps). Overall, he's registered 23 combined tackles and two pass deflections, as well as 1.0 sack and a pair of pressures on 10 blitz attempts.
In the Seahawks' 30-23 win over the 49ers on Sunday, Neal had a rough go of it trying to cover 49ers tight end George Kittle. PFF credited him with allowing three catches on four targets for 87 yards and a touchdown to Kittle. But following Adams' injury, Neal was able to recover and made a key tackle of running back Elijah Mitchell during the team's successful goal-line stand in the closing seconds.
It's hard to find silver linings after losing a superstar player to such a serious injury, but the Seahawks can rest a bit easier knowing they have a capable replacement in Neal. He was an unsung hero in their run to a division title in 2020, doing more than just filling the void of a missing centerpiece. He carved out a role for himself and now gets an opportunity to show why Seattle has arguably the deepest safety group in the NFL.