RENTON, WA - With their defense off to a poor start last October and on pace to break the NFL record for passing yards allowed in a single season, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll knew some personnel changes needed to be made to help turn things around in the second half.
First, coming off a disappointing 37-34 overtime loss in Arizona in which the team registered one quarterback hit on Kyler Murray, Seattle promptly dealt a seventh-round pick and reserve center B.J. Finney to Cincinnati for disgruntled veteran defensive end Carlos Dunlap. This move paid immediate dividends bolstering the team's dormant pass rush, as the Seahawks finished first in the NFL in sacks during the final eight weeks of the season.
But while Dunlap's impact has been well-documented, his arrival wasn't the only move that rejuvenated Seattle's maligned defense. With starting cornerbacks Quinton Dunbar and Shaquill Griffin nursing injuries, former 49ers castoff D.J. Reed made a miraculous recovery from a torn pectoral muscle and jumped into the starting lineup at right cornerback, helping solidify a secondary that had been torched by opposing quarterbacks all season long.
After being activated from the PUP list, Reed immediately made his presence felt in a spot start at nickel cornerback, picking off former teammate Jimmy Garoppolo in his Seahawks debut. Though lacking the size (5-foot-9) and arm length (31 5/8 inches) Carroll typically favored at outside cornerback, once Dunbar landed on season-ending injured reserve, he filled in admirably as his replacement on the right side and started eight of the team's final nine regular season games at the position.
Per Pro Football Focus, Reed allowed 35 receptions on 55 targets for 394 yards and surrendered just one touchdown in coverage. Opposing quarterbacks posted a 75.9 passer rating when targeting him and were especially ineffective in the final five games, posting a passer rating below 53.0 in three of those contests when throwing his direction. He also contributed against the run, racking up 59 tackles, while recovering a pair of fumbles, playing a vital role in the team allowing less than 15 points per game while finishing 6-2 in the final eight games.
Earning Carroll's trust in the process, Reed entered his second season with the organization as a favorite to retain a starting role in Seattle's secondary. Despite missing the whole preseason with a hip injury, the team switched him over to the left side right before the start of the regular season and he was named a Week 1 starter across from Tre Flowers prior to the opener in Indianapolis.
Unfortunately, the Seahawks initial decisions at cornerback didn't pan out as hoped. In the final year of his rookie deal, Flowers struggled mightily, yielding 14 receptions on 16 targets for 208 yards and a touchdown as quarterbacks posted a 139.6 passer rating against him. After three starts, Carroll sent him to the bench in favor of Sidney Jones and one week later, the team released him.
As for Reed, the former Kansas State star didn't adjust well to playing on the left side. Though he held up well in Week 2 matching up against Titans star wideout A.J. Brown, Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins picked on him the following week, throwing touchdowns to Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen with him in coverage. During the Seahawks' first three games, he allowed 10 receptions on 16 targets for 101 yards, a touchdown, and a 120.1 passer rating, a far cry from his performance in 2020.
In a move coinciding with Flowers' demotion and eventual departure, Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. decided to switch Reed back to right cornerback prior to a Week 4 road tilt against the 49ers. Since that point, the Seahawks defense has made significant strides, allowing 18 points per game in their last five contests.
"I’m thrilled that we figured it out," Carroll said of the decision to slide Reed back to right cornerback. "Remember, the reason we did it is because someone else had done really well, and we were trying to get the best of both guys. It’s worked out very much in our favor. I think the corner play in general has really helped us improve. We’ve made a lot of improvements since those changes have happened.”
Much like late last season, as Carroll noted, improved cornerback play has spearheaded Seattle's recent defensive turnaround. While Jones and rookie Tre Brown have hit their stride rotating at the left cornerback spot, Reed has found his 2020 groove since transitioning back to the right side.
Over the past five games, opposing quarterbacks have targeted Reed 24 times and completed only 11 of those passes for 137 yards, no touchdowns, and a pedestrian 64.1 passer rating. During that span, he also has broken up three passes and made 19 tackles while limiting opposing receivers to 22 yards after the catch, or just two yards after the catch per reception.
When asked why he believes Reed looks so much more comfortable on the right side compared to the left, Carroll didn't offer too many specifics. But he cited Richard Sherman and Flowers to a lesser extent as examples of players who thrived on a specific side in Seattle's scheme, indicating it isn't uncommon for a player to have a better feel on one side than the other.
“Sometimes guys are just right-handed. That’s the way I feel the most comfortable. For him, he would tell you that he can play on both sides, which he has, but he does feel better on the right side, and he just seems to have a better knack and a better sense for it," Carroll explained. "That’s why Richard used to play on the left side. You saw Tre Flowers played on the right side. Guys just have a better sense and awareness for it. D.J. wouldn’t give in to that, but there’s no question that he’s more effective there."
If there's a caveat to the improved play from Reed, Jones, and Brown, the Seahawks haven't necessarily faced any offensive juggernauts over the past month, benefiting from subpar opposing quarterback play. Jimmy Garoppolo and Trey Lance have been ineffective for the 49ers, Ben Roethlisberger is a shell of his former self in his 18th season with the Steelers, Jameis Winston struggled to connect on throws in windy, rainy conditions for the Saints, and Trevor Lawrence looked like a rookie in every sense for the Jaguars.
Over the next few weeks, Reed and his cornerback counterparts will have a chance to prove the recent turnaround isn't a mirage against elite competition. Assuming he's off the COVID-19/reserve list, reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers will be starting for the Packers on Sunday, while Murray should be back in action steering the high-powered Cardinals when they travel to Seattle to battle the Seahawks in Week 11. In those two games, they will have to deal with superstar receivers Davante Adams and DeAndre Hopkins along with other quality wideouts.
There's no question those upcoming contests will provide a litmus test to see where Seattle's defense stands as a whole. If the cornerbacks revert to how they performed while getting carved up by the likes of Ryan Tannehill and Matthew Stafford in the first month of the season, Carroll and company could be in for a couple long afternoons, putting the team's season on the brink.
But with Reed back in his element at right cornerback and Brown quickly emerging as a viable starting option platooning with an improving Jones, Carroll remains confident the Seahawks are trending in the right direction at the position. If the group can start creating turnovers - none of their cornerbacks have a pick this year in eight games - he thinks they could be catalysts for a second half playoff push starting on Sunday.
"I think we have taken a turn, I like what we are doing, I like where we are, I like the mentality, and all of that, so we have to put some stuff together. We have to take the ball away from the other team. We have missed three little tipped balls for picks that we could have had, so that will be a big difference for us if we can turn that around.”