RENTON, Wash. - When the Seahawks first reported for training camp in July, while the team as a whole didn't have high expectations, linebackers Jordyn Brooks and Darrell Taylor looked poised to take the leap forward towards stardom in their third respective NFL seasons.
Last year, with Bobby Wagner still patrolling the middle beside him, Brooks broke Seattle's franchise record with 184 tackles, including a record-tying 20 stops in a season-ending win over Arizona. Along with leading the team with 10 tackles for loss, while his overall coverage numbers still left much to be desired, his awareness reading and stopping screens improved substantially as the year progressed.
Earning his first All-Pro vote at the conclusion of the season, Brooks' ascendance played a role in Seattle's decision to cut Wagner in March, letting the future Hall of Famer walk in a cost-cutting move.
As for Taylor, who missed his entire rookie season recovering from surgery to repair a stress fracture in his left leg, the former Tennessee standout brought some much-needed punch to Seattle's pass rush. While his play cooled off in the second half, he registered 4.0 sacks in his first five games and led the team with 36 total pressures, looking the part of a long-term answer to the team's musical chairs problem off the edge over the past several seasons.
Putting the uber-athletic Taylor into a hybrid 3-4 defense that accentuated his speed and quickness as an upfield rusher was only supposed to accelerate his development rolling into his pseudo-sophomore season.
But two games into the new season, though Brooks and Taylor have each had their moments with flashy plays, neither has played up to expectations for the Seahawks thus far. Specifically, with how much acclimating to a new scheme has factored into their underwhelming performance being unclear, both young linebackers have battled their own separate issues as run defenders against the Broncos and 49ers, who amassed 292 rushing yards against the Seahawks.
Out of the gate, Brooks has racked up 23 combined tackles, putting him in the top-five in the NFL in that category. But unlike last year, the former first-round pick hasn't been making as many high-impact plays, failing to register a tackle for loss through eight quarters and producing only four tackles where the opponent gained less than five yards on the play.
Pro Football Focus also charged Brooks with three missed tackles in the first two games and those misses didn't account for other plays where his pursuit angles haven't been up to his usual standard. What is behind the regression?
As coach Pete Carroll pointed out on Monday, not all of the blame lies on Brooks' shoulders, as cohesion between Seattle's front seven in regard to run fits remains a work in progress with the change to a 3-4 scheme. In the trenches, despite having several experienced veterans at the defensive tackle position, keeping linebackers clean to "flow and make plays" has been a struggle with offensive linemen regularly climbing to the second level and getting hands on Brooks and Cody Barton.
"We need to work together better. We had some fantastic plays in this game where we dominated the line of scrimmage, then we had other plays where it looked like we were out of whack," Carroll explained. "It’s unusual for us to lack that consistency. I do think that it is going to take us a little more time than we want to, to get really connected really tightly against the really good offenses that are dedicated to running the football like the 49ers. We learned a lot in that game, we had to. We had enough chances, so we will grow."
Seattle's issues slowing down opposing running games haven't been limited to run fits and blockers effectively reaching Brooks and Barton at the second level. Denver and San Francisco both found great success testing the edge with off-tackle runs, especially to the right side where Taylor resides as an outside linebacker.
On multiple occasions, the 255-pound Taylor has been blown off the football by opposing tackles, failing to set the edge and creating a large crease for the running back to explode through. Though freelancing has led to a few tackles for loss along the way, he also has found himself out out of position several times occupying the same gap as a teammate as a result of his aggressiveness shooting inside, opening up big cutback lanes for the back if he can't make the stop.
Unfortunately for the Seahawks, wrapping up and finishing tackles has been even more problematic for Taylor. After failing to record a tackle on 52 snaps in the season opener, he missed a pair of tackles against the 49ers, including failing to bring down receiver/running back Deebo Samuel last Sunday. Despite being in position to bring him down for minimal gain, he didn't break down properly and came up empty, allowing Samuel to turn the play into a 51-yard run.
While Taylor's play has been discouraging through Seattle's first two games and a lot of plays have been left on the field, Carroll remains optimistic he will turn things around as the team best figures out how to utilize personnel within a new scheme and emerge as the difference maker they expected him to be this season.
“He’s learning, he’s learning," Carroll said of Taylor. "I think as we are adjusting in this early part of the season, we’re trying to figure out how to best use our guys, proportionately and rushing versus playing on early downs and stuff like that. So, we’re working on that. He can do everything. We particularly like him as a rusher coming off the edge because of his speed and all that. We’re learning. He’s learning, we’re learning.”
Defensive coordinator Clint Hurtt, who lauded Taylor's talent and improvement throughout the offseason, agreed with Carroll's assessment after Wednesday's practice, telling reporters the onus falls on the coaches to help the player get over the hump and perform at a high level consistently.
“I addressed that stuff accountability-wise with him privately. What I will say is that there are things that he wants to play better. We have to continue to coach him better and clean up some details for him," Hurtt elaborated. "But obviously, we expect great things out of him collectively as a group. There are plays that he’s made, but we need the consistency to be right is what it is.”
As the Seahawks gear up for a Week 3 battle with the Falcons at Lumen Field, Brooks, Taylor, and the rest of the defense don't have time to wait to improve against the run. With a mobile quarterback in Marcus Mariota and multi-talented runner Cordarrelle Patterson leading the way, their upcoming opponent boasts a top-10 rushing attack that racked up 201 total yards on the ground against an excellent Saints defense two weeks ago.
To avoid a repeat of what Hurtt described as a "horror show" when Seattle gave up 123 rushing yards in the first half to San Francisco last Sunday, run fits will have to be cleaned up across the board, including setting a firm edge off tackle. Most importantly, the defense as a whole must wrap up and swarm to the ball to limit yards after contact that have plagued them to start the season.
As leaders for a young Seahawks defense with a lot of new components in important positions, Brooks and Taylor must lead the charge by elevating their own play and setting the tone moving forward as Wagner, K.J. Wright, and others once did. Both have the potential to be game-changing stars, but if they aren't able to step up their respective games and play with greater discipline in quick order, fans may be exposed to more of the same getting steamrolled by an opposing run game this weekend.
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