Seahawks' 2021 Cornerback Gamble Is Failing

Despite obvious holes at the position with the departure of two former starters, Seattle decided not to make any significant splashes to upgrade the cornerback group. With the current starters struggling, such negligence has played a big role in costing the team back-to-back games against Tennessee and Minnesota.
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The Seahawks decided to take a large gamble in the offseason. Short of assets after the blockbuster trade for strong safety Jamal Adams, general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll went light at cornerback. After rolling the dice, the pair of Seahawks decision makers are now close to broke.

In a situation reminiscent of the 2019 approach to the pass rush, Seattle’s cornerback play on the field is one of the biggest reasons for the defensive struggles. Hindsight is a luxurious benefit. Yet this issue didn’t exactly sneak up on Schneider and Carroll: Heading into the 2021 offseason, it was obvious that corner was an enormous need in the team’s present and future.

Shaquill Griffin, 2020 starting left cornerback - considered by Carroll as the spot for his No. 1 guy - departed in free agency, paid by the Jacksonville Jaguars. This left the Seahawks with zero cornerbacks under contract following the 2022 season.

Ahkello Witherspoon was viewed by the franchise as a stopgap solution but also a low-risk, high-reward move. A one-year, $4 million signing, Witherspoon had the prototypical big, long, athletic measurables that fit what Seattle wants from their left-sided player.

The 26-year-old Witherspoon, however, never played with the style that Carroll seeks from his corners. Throughout the preseason, Witherspoon rarely connected with his jam when aligned in press coverage, instead choosing to rely solely on his feet.

Witherspoon opted to use a mirror-step press technique at the line of scrimmage rather than the outside foot, read-step. Seattle does coach a mirror technique to their corners and it is used particularly often by the smaller defensive backs. Above anything else, whether read-stepping or mirror-stepping, the Seahawks want to see disruption from hands at the line of scrimmage - a physical challenge.

By choosing to mirror-step, Witherspoon became a skill-set contradiction. More than that, he was not disruptive at the line of scrimmage with his upper body. He’d shown himself to be a finesse-kinda dude in San Francisco and Seattle’s coaching could not get him to connect more often with his hands at the line of scrimmage - whatever his preferred technique. The Seahawks front office should have believed Witherspoon when he showed them who he was for the first four years of his NFL career.

Carroll did not want this play in his defense; Witherspoon was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers for a 2023 fifth round pick in a salary cap dump. A negative feel and energy surrounded the trade, with passing game coordinator Andre Curtis remaining a believer in Witherspoon as a player.

Here are some other cornerback names who signed in 2021 free agency:

  • 27-year old Ronald Darby signed with Denver Broncos 3-years, $30 million
  • 26-year old Chidobe Awuzie signed with Cincinatti Bengals 3-years, $21.75 million
  • 31-year old Patrick Peterson signed with Minnesota Vikings 1-year, $10 million
  • 29-year old Kyle Fuller signed with Denver Broncos 1 year, $9.5 million
  • 30-year old A.J. Bouye signed with Carolina Panthers 2-years, $7 million
  • 31-year old Xavier Rhodes re-signed with Indianapolis Colts 1-year, $6.5 million
  • 30-year old Jason Verett re-signed with San Francisco 49ers 1-year $5.5 million
  • 31-year old Casey Hayward signed with Las Vegas Raiders 1-year. $2.5 million
  • 28-year old Steven Nelson signed with Philadelphia Eagles 1-year, $2.5 million
  • 26-year old Levi Wallace re-signed with Buffalo Bills 1-year, $1.75 million

D.J. Reed played superbly during the back half of the 2020 season at right cornerback. Seattle got excellent value too, claiming him off waivers as a nickel, following the 49ers’ decision to cut him following a torn pectoral injury. In that stint last season, Reed brought a cerebral play to the position that we have not seen since the heady days of the championship secondary. He established a new cornerback mold on the roster: the Donnie LeGrande small guy.

The most disappointing ramification of the Witherspoon move's failure was that it forced Reed to switch from the right side to the left side, becoming the new number 1. This shattered the opportunity for continuity, an all-important factor to successful Seattle defense. While Reed did make his first start for Seattle at left corner, the bulk of his work was done on the right—a spot where he also looked more comfortable breaking on stuff.

When Tre Flowers ‘won’ the right cornerback gig, he was the only long cornerback on the roster who employed the outside read step technique and aggressively pressed receivers at the line of scrimmage with consistent hand work.

Flowers’ rise to starting right corner was marketed by Carroll as the competition succeeding into producing a starter. That was merely the head coach stretching the truth via a positive motivational spin, though. Reed missed much of camp and all of preseason action with a groin injury. In truth, Flowers was handed the spot by default. Moreover, however impressive Flowers was in camp, he still struggled in preseason action to break with in-cuts and with change of direction skills in general.

After the first three weeks of the regular season defense, Flowers looks like an NFL case of fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, fool me thrice etc. etc. Per the charting of Pro Football Focus, Flowers allowed 7 catches for 78 yards during Week 3 in Minnesota. On the season, Flowers has given up 14 catches on 16 targets for 208 yards and a 139.6 rating against.

The current defensive scheme reflects Flowers. In Week 1, Seattle’s coaching staff was smart. The Seahawks were largely a middle field open team in pass defense, a fact especially true in clear passing situations. Flowers was often deployed in a cover 2 hard re-route technique. This allowed him to focus on his best traits (aggression, re-routing) without having to worry about his issues (getting beat deep, covering sharp cuts while isolated)

The unfortunate truth of NFL offense is that there are numerous quarterbacks surrounded by elite receiving talent. These passers are good enough to pick on cornerbacks with their weapons, isolating them within the different schemes for big yardage.

When there is just one dominant receiving weapon, playing ISO ball becomes tougher because the defense can shade coverage to that side. Ryan Tannehill has Julio Jones and A.J. Brown. Kirk Cousins enjoys Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson.

A defense can play middle field open pass coverage to try and help versus both receivers, easing the job of the corners. However, this move leaves the defensive front out-gapped versus the majority of runs. This soon becomes a real issue when facing the committed run games of the Derrick Henry-led Titans or underrated Vikings’ back Alex Mattinson.

To force the ball to come out faster and under duress Seattle defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr could also scheme more pressures and blitzes, but this only accentuates the issue of the perimeter cornerback being isolated, with the one-on-one more apparent or wider.

The opposing, alternate thought is to drop eight defenders into coverage, rather than the conventional seven, although this only leaves you with three men rushing the quarterback. Gaining an extra cover guy is done at the expense of damaging the pass rush.

So the solution is instead to mix each strategy in. However, this can then lead to a defense running too much stuff and overly complicating their game-plans to the point that everything is executed poorly, with missed assignments. This is an especially valid concern early in the season. Identify can be lost. 

The overarching takeaway is that a talent deficiency can only be accounted for by scheme to an extent. At a certain point, the old adage of "Jimmies and Joes not Xs and Os" becomes inescapable.

Seattle did try to add competition at cornerback in the draft despite possessing only three picks. However, they chose to go with the small corner mold when they selected the twitchy, scrappy Tre Brown in the fourth round.

Brown was impressing in camp and looked to be pushing Witherspoon for the left cornerback spot before hurting his knee. This was a sprain that Brown had dealt with before and he headed to the injured reserve list to get it cleaned up for good via surgery.

Another draft pick where the medicals did not flag this as a potential issue? Or simply a risk Seattle felt comfortable taking despite their cornerback need, perhaps inspired by misplaced confidence in the Witherspoon signing? Brown should return off the injured reserve list. Whether Carroll is comfortable moving Reed back to the right and then running with two small dudes is another question.

Here were some of the long cornerback options from the 2021 NFL Draft:

  • Benjamin St-Juste, Minnesota—Round 3, Pick 74 to the Washington Football Team
  • Paulson Adebo, Stanford—Round 3, Pick 76 to the New Orleans Saints
  • Nahshon Wright, Oregon State—Round 3, Pick 99 to the Dallas Cowboys
  • Robert Rochell, Central Arkansas—Round 4, Pick 130 to the Los Angeles Rams
  • Keith Taylor, Washington—Round 5, Pick 166 to the Washington Football Team
  • Jason Pinnock, Pittsburgh—Round 5, Pick 175 to the New York Jets

All of the cornerbacks beneath Brown on the Seattle 2021 camp depth chart failed to make the Seahawks’ roster or practice squad. The trio of 2020 undrafted free agent Gavin Heslop, veteran minimum Pierre Desir and 2021 UDFA Bryan Mills were in the long corner-type. The release of each player meant that Witherspoon and Flowers were the only long corner options.

Throughout the offseason, a legendary lengthy CB option in 34-year old Richard Sherman remained unsigned. Sherman and Carroll spoke during this period, and yet Seattle remained static, not willing to shake up their competition into a situation where Sherman would surely have re-gained his left side on the Seahawks. Sherman did have his off-the-field incident, but now he is visiting with the Super Bowl-champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Some promising cornerback news is that, better late than never, the front office did re-tool their options at the position, adding late depth in the process after their first round of attempts missed. They traded a conditional pick to the Houston Texans for John Reid. They claimed Baltimore Ravens safety convert Nigel Warrior off waivers; Warrior went on IR the next week. They gave the Jacksonville Jaguars a sixth rounder for Sidney Jones and they signed Bless Austin after he was released by the New York Jets.

Reid, praise from Carroll not withstanding, is in the small corner mold that makes him unlikely to start opposite D.J. Reed. Indeed, Reid received one snap at nickel corner in the place of Ugo Amadi.

Austin and Jones, though, are currently battling hard for the right corner spot given their skill sets. Jones is kind of a 'tweener but has shown himself to be a ball-hawk, something Seattle is sorely missing at present. Austin is a physical and long player who will excite Carroll in press. Whatever the move, something must change at perimeter corner, regardless of how little time the newcomers have experienced as Seahawks. The defense is in peril.