RENTON, Wash. - After getting gashed for more than 140 rushing yards for a second consecutive week in a 27-23 loss to the Falcons, coach Pete Carroll looks primed to shake things up a bit on defense.
Frustrated by the unit's continued struggles executing run fits, shedding blocks, and finishing tackles, Carroll acknowledged on Monday some of Seattle's ongoing issues boil down to acclimating to a new 3-4 scheme and breaking in several new players. But he's certainly not going to use that as an excuse for the subpar performance from the 31st ranked run defense in the NFL and to help remedy the problem, it may be time to make a few personnel-related changes.
Specifically, while not directly calling out starting outside linebacker Darrell Taylor in the process, Carroll indicated the Seahawks need to find more snaps for rookie Boye Mafe and Darryl "Bam" Johnson as part of the edge rotation moving forward.
"I like the rotation with our guys at this position and we are trying to find out the right mix there," Carroll told reporters on Monday. "With Boye [Mafe] playing better and showing some good signs and us falling for Bam [Darryl Johnson], that combination of how we mix those guys is really something we are trying to zero in on.”
Through the first three games, while he has made a few splashy plays along the way, Taylor has largely been a liability for Seattle against the run, often getting blown off the football by blockers and consistently failing to set the edge. Opponents have made it a priority to run off tackle right at him and found persistent success doing so.
Currently, per Pro Football Focus, Taylor ranks 39th out of 41 qualified defensive ends/EDGE defenders with a dismal 35.0 run defense grade. He also ranks in the top five at the position in missed tackle percentage (40 percent), with his most notable miss coming on a run by 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel in Week 2 that wound up busting for a 51-yard gain after he whiffed on him at the line of scrimmage.
Given Taylor's struggles, Carroll and his staff have been put in a position where reallocating snaps at outside linebacker may be the only move to make at this juncture. As things stand, Mafe should be the greatest beneficiary after a strong start to his NFL career.
Entering his rookie season viewed as a situational pass rusher according to Carroll, Mafe has proven himself to be far more reliable defending the run in a limited sample size. In Sunday's defeat, the second-round pick out of Minnesota recorded three tackles on 19 defensive snaps, including a pair of run stops netting less than two yards, doing a superb job setting the edge, disengaging from blocks, and making plays in backside pursuit.
“He did do well against the run game, he played the edge really well yesterday," Carroll said of Mafe's outing. "We are looking to continue to add for him. He’s looked like he has played strong, he’s been active, and he’s made a few plays in every game he’s been in. We need to keep going with him and keep the rotation going. I don’t think that we’ve found the exact rotation for us yet, but we are working on it.”
While the sample size remains relatively small with only 29 snaps as a run defender, Mafe has been impressive when given the opportunity to play. According to Pro Football Focus, the ex-Minnesota star ranks ninth among qualified defenders with at least 25 run defense reps earning an outstanding 80.5 grade. He's also in the top five at his position for stop percentage, producing tackles that "constitute a failure for the offense" nearly 18 percent of his snaps.
“He’s taking everything that we do in practice and continue to work and develop," defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt said on Wednesday. "So that part has been encouraging to see and why he needs to play more.”
As for Mafe's pass rushing production, he hasn't been near as efficient through three games, generating only two pressures on 31 rush opportunities. With that said, he was the only Seahawk to post a sack against the 49ers in Week 2 and considering his immense athletic tools, it's only a matter of time before he begins finding his way to the quarterback with far greater frequency.
Even with him starting off with a limited role as he acclimated to the league, the Seahawks anticipated Mafe would contribute right away. But Johnson, who the team claimed off waivers from the Panthers last month, wasn't brought on board with defensive contributions necessarily in mind and was viewed as a special teams asset covering kickoffs at 260 pounds.
But with Taylor underperforming and Alton Robinson currently on injured reserve, Johnson has taken advantage of his chances on defense and emerged as one of the few bright spots for the unit thus far. Rotating in as an outside linebacker while also seeing a handful of snaps reduced inside on passing downs, he's brought much-needed physicality off the edge, producing four tackles and a tackle for loss.
Offering far more on defense than anticipated while also playing well on special teams as planned, Carroll praised Johnson for his physical playing style and football IQ, indicating he wanted to see him play more on early downs moving forward.
"I just have come to appreciate his general ball sense and awareness," Carroll remarked. "He has a really good feel, he is a really good technician, he has flexibility, and can play different spots. You could have read into that he could contribute on special teams in a big way, and he might have better awareness than other guys. Covering kicks at 260 pounds, that’s a special player. He has given us some stuff. Like with Boye, we want him to continue to be part of the rotation and keep growing that thing.”
As Carroll noted, Seattle remains high on Taylor's upside and believes he can develop into a top-notch talent. But so far, with a few flashy plays as exceptions, he hasn't come close to playing to his potential and his struggles defending the run have significantly hindered the defense.
In time, Taylor may win playing time back with improved performance. But for now, he hasn't earned those opportunities as an every down defender and Carroll understands he needs to pull some strings to spark the maligned unit. In an ironic twist, he may be best suited for the situational pass rusher role the Seahawks originally intended for Mafe with the rookie and Johnson taking early down snaps at his expense.
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