During the first half of the 2020 season, the Seahawks were on a record-setting pace on defense, but for all the wrong reasons.
Unable to stop anyone, Seattle allowed north of 350 passing yards per game in the first nine games - they were on pace to destroy Green Bay's single-season record for passing yards allowed by more than 1,000 yards - and were giving up close to 30 points per game. Things only seemed to be getting worse when they allowed 44 points in a Week 9 loss to Buffalo, the most points allowed since coach Pete Carroll arrived in 2010.
Despite the futility and ineptitude, Carroll remained steadfast in his belief the Seahawks would eventually right the ship. Sure enough, everything started to click during the second half in a Week 10 loss to the Rams, as the team allowed just six points after halftime and suddenly became formidable down the stretch.
In the final seven weeks of the season, the Seahawks held their opponents to a paltry 197 passing yards and 15 points per game. Going 6-1 during that stretch, including enacting revenge against the Rams in Week 16 to clinch an NFC West title, they only gave up more than 20 points once. It was truly one of the most remarkable mid-season turnarounds in NFL history.
Unfortunately, Seattle's defensive renaissance didn't lead to postseason success. In a grudge match with their bitter rivals from southern California, the team dropped a 30-20 wild card matchup to the Rams at Lumen Field, making for a quick playoff exit.
Was the performance in those final two months a fluke? Or a sign of things to come? Even after losing starters Shaquill Griffin and Jarran Reed this offseason, as the Seahawks prepare to embark on a new season, there's plenty of reasons to believe those improvements will be sustained and the defense will be even better in 2021.
1. After surging in the second half last season, Seattle's pass rush should be even more potent with impressive talent and depth at defensive end.
In the first seven games of the 2021 season, the Seahawks couldn't muster much of a pass rush, relying on blitzing linebacker Bobby Wagner and safety Jamal Adams to generate most of their pressure. During that span, the team amassed 12.0 sacks, which ranked 22nd in the league. Despite missing four games with a groin injury, Adams remained tied for the team lead with a pair of sacks at that point.
Once Carlos Dunlap arrived, however, every player on Seattle's defensive front elevated their games. The veteran end contributed 5.0 sacks in eight games, including a game-clinching fourth down sack against Kyler Murray in Week 11. His presence galvanized the entire unit, as Jarran Reed produced 5.5 sacks after he arrived and Benson Mayowa found his rhythm with 4.0 sacks in the final six games. As a team, with Adams continuing to wreak havoc in addition to much-improved front line play spearheaded by Dunlap, the Seahawks led all NFL teams with 34 sacks in the final nine games of the regular season.
Rather than rest on their laurels, even after losing Reed to the Chiefs, the Seahawks aggressively pursued pass rushing reinforcements during free agency to make the group even more formidable. After initially being released due to the league's lowered salary cap, Dunlap returned on a two-year deal. Then general manager John Schneider shrewdly brought back Mayowa and signed Kerry Hyder, who produced 8.5 sacks in 2020, away from the 49ers. As the ultimate wild card, the team also signed Aldon Smith, whose status remains unclear after being arrested in Louisiana in April.
Even if Smith can't play, Seattle should be able to rotate multiple quality defenders at both end spots. Hyder and Collier will compete to start at the base end position and whoever loses that battle will still see extensive snaps reduced inside. At the LEO position behind Dunlap and Mayowa, the team will have a bevy of capable rushers to rotate in and keep their veterans fresh, including second-year ends Darrell Taylor and Alton Robinson. There's no question, at least on paper, the outside pass rush should only improve moving forward.
2. The Seahawks should have a better idea of how to best deploy a fully-healthy Adams in his second season.
After trading multiple first-round picks to the Jets to acquire him, expectations for Adams in his first season as a Seahawk were understandably sky high. But the fact he struggled at times early in the year, particularly in coverage, shouldn't have surprised anyone. With the trade happening just before the start of an abbreviated training camp impacted by the pandemic, he didn't have much time to try to get acclimated to a new scheme and on the flip side, the coaches weren't fully comfortable with how to maximize his strengths in the confines of their defense. Missing four games in the first half didn't help his cause.
But after he returned to action in Week 8, even while dealing with cracked fingers and a labrum tear in his shoulder later in the year, Adams found his groove as Seattle's defense turned the corner in the final two months. Coaches began to figure out how to best utilize his strengths and the team began implementing more 5-2 "bear" fronts with him playing in the box and functioning like a third linebacker. As a result, he amassed 7.5 sacks in the final eight games, helping break Adrian Wilson's single season record for defensive backs.
In the past, the Seahawks rarely sent defensive backs on blitzes. But last season, adjusting to their personnel, according to Football Outsiders, they ranked first in the entire league in that category, sending corners and safeties 21 percent of the time. The majority of those blitz calls were for Adams, who wound up leading the team in sacks and tackles for loss while playing in only 12 games. Continuing to use him in that capacity should speed up the clock for opposing quarterbacks and take pressure off the rest of the team's secondary.
When training camp opens, the Seahawks expect Adams to be close to 100 percent healthy after multiple offseason surgeries and coming off a strong finish to the 2020 campaign, he will be far more comfortable in Seattle's scheme and the coaches will know how to make the most of his unique talents. Assuming he signs the record-breaking extension he desires before or during the early stages of camp, he should be primed for a monster second season.
3. Despite losing Griffin and Quinton Dunbar, Seattle has better cornerback talent than advertised and competition should yield two quality outside starters.
Looking at the Seahawks cornerback group as a whole, it's easy to see why pundits view the position as a question mark or even a glaring weak spot. Both starting cornerbacks from a year ago have moved on in free agency and aside from feisty fourth-round pick Tre Brown, the majority of the players expected to compete to replace Griffin and Dunbar are only under contract through the 2021 season and will become free agents next March.
But while questions persist about whether or not Seattle has a surefire starting outside cornerback on the roster, the team does have intriguing options on the depth chart. Signed away from the 49ers, 6-foot-3 Ahkello Witherspoon was on the Seahawks' radar coming out of Colorado in 2017 and though he's been inconsistent, he finished 2020 on a strong note and fits their scheme quite well. Another ex-49er, D.J. Reed, bucked prior trends in Carroll's defense by excelling on the outside despite being only 5-foot-9, producing 62 tackles and a pair of picks in 10 games.
Witherspoon and Reed will enter camp as the favorites to earn starting roles, but as Carroll has pointed out several times this offseason, he's excited about the looming competition at the position and several other names are worth keeping an eye on. Only three years ago, veteran Pierre Desir turned in a Pro Bowl-caliber season with the Colts, amassing 79 tackles and eight passes defensed while earning a respectable 77.5 grade from Pro Football Focus. He has 44 NFL starts under his belt, while Tre Flowers will return for his fourth season in Seattle and has started 37 games in three seasons. Both of those players should be in the mix, while Brown will be the wild card entering his first NFL training camp after a stellar college career at Oklahoma.
If the competition plays out how Carroll anticipates it will next month, whichever two corners emerge from the fray as the starters will be battle-tested. With better depth than a year ago, they may even be able to do a three or four player rotation depending on opponent matchups. Given the Seahawks track record for developing players at the position and the improved pass rush up front, the team should be able to withstand Griffin and Dunbar departing.
4. A pair of high-upside second-year linebackers will provide much-needed speed to the middle of Seattle's defense.
For nearly a decade, the Seahawks have had one of the best linebacker duos in football with Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright dominating next to each other on Sundays. Both players continued to play outstanding football in 2020, as Wagner garnered First-Team All-Pro honors for the sixth straight season and racked up 138 tackles, while Wright seamlessly transitioned to strongside linebacker and stuffed the stat sheet with 86 tackles, 10 passes defensed, 11 tackles for loss, and a pair of sacks.
Despite this success, however, the 32-year old Wright remains unsigned with training camp less than a week away. Though both sides have kept the door open for a reunion, the Seahawks seem content moving forward with Jordyn Brooks and Taylor taking the reins next to Wagner and want their top two picks from the 2020 draft to see significant snaps this season.
Following a slow start, Brooks came on strong during the second half of his rookie season while playing weakside linebacker in Seattle's base 4-3 looks. He registered 30 tackles in the final five regular season games, showcasing his elite speed chasing down ball carriers sideline-to-sideline and covering running backs and tight ends. Entering his second season, the former Texas Tech standout is expected to remain in the lineup in nickel and dime sets alongside Wagner and should be a significant athletic upgrade over Wright at the position.
As for Taylor, the Seahawks didn't get to see what he could do as a rookie due to multiple setbacks working back from leg surgery. But the athletic 255-pound defender impressed during OTAs and minicamp working as a SAM linebacker and LEO defensive end and based off of comments by Carroll, he's likely to see game action at both positions playing a Bruce Irvin-style hybrid role. His ability to pin his ears back and rush off the edge will add a dimension at strongside linebacker that Wright simply could not provide and he offers enough size to hold up against the run as well.
Choosing to go with a youth movement could backfire on the organization if Brooks and Taylor battle injuries or don't meet expectations. But as great as Wright has been over the past 10 years, he's an aging player with diminishing athletic skills and quality teams have to make difficult decisions with iconic players sometimes. In this case, while there's risk moving on from a reliable veteran who still can play, the Seahawks' defense has a higher ceiling pairing the future Hall of Famer in Wagner with Brooks and Taylor in the lineup.
5. Coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has far more flexibility personnel-wise, which should make the defense better week-to-week by default.
At the root of Seattle's defensive struggles last September and October, the team didn't seem to have an identity. Carroll and Norton continued to live-and-die by the Cover 3, single-high, four-man rush sword that was so effective during the "Legion of Boom" era, but the team's personnel wasn't equipped to wield it.
Give credit to Carroll and Norton though. The former has been criticized often for his stubbornness relying on running the football offensively and overall game management skills, but he exhibited adaptability by making some significant schematic modifications at the midway point of the 2020 season. The latter executed these changes to near-perfection, mixing in more exotic five and six-man pressures and using more nickel and dime packages with "bear" fronts. As mentioned earlier, this played to Adams' strengths as a blitzer and maximized on the talent in the trenches, allowing Seattle's pass rush to come to life and take pressure off the secondary.
Heading into 2021, Carroll and Norton should be licking their lips thinking about the flexibility at their disposal. Up front, the Seahawks have a myriad of pass rushers offering different skill sets and several players with positional versatility to play inside and out. They have speed to burn in the middle with Brooks and Taylor entering the lineup and Adams playing a pseudo third linebacker role in nickel and dime formations. The return of Marquise Blair from an ACL injury adds another play maker at nickel cornerback who can blitz, deliver big hits against the run, and has the speed and size to cover slot receivers as well as tight ends. Having him on the field with Adams and fellow Pro Bowl safety Quandre Diggs opens up a world of possibilities from a play-calling standpoint.
Put simply, while the Seahawks may have a few positions with question marks on defense going into camp, there's an abundance of talented chess pieces at all three levels and the team has amassed quality depth across the board. If these pieces are utilized properly by the coaching staff and young players such as Brooks and Blair take a major step forward, this should be a top-10 defensive unit, if not better.