For the vast majority of the 2020 season thus far, an embattled Seahawks' secondary has been under fire for unsatisfactory play and rightfully so. Up until two weeks ago, the underachieving group served as the primary culprit for the team being on pace to obliterate the NFL record for passing yards allowed in a single season.
While injuries can't be used as an excuse, the inability to build chemistry and cohesion in the defensive backfield certainly contributed to those historic struggles. Since Week 2, Seattle hasn't played a single game with all four of its projected starters at cornerback and safety on the field together, and even in that game against New England, Quandre Diggs was ejected in the first quarter.
With five games left to play and the Seahawks' defense suddenly surging, however, cornerback Shaquill Griffin believes the group is finally starting to come together.
"Jamal [Adams] brought it up last week at during practice," Griffin said after Monday's 23-17 win in Philadelphia. "People can't say how many games this actual secondary actually played together. At one point, someone else was hurt, then I got hurt, then Quinton Dunbar got hurt - it was so much going on, we never got a chance to build the chemistry together and everybody was in at certain times in certain periods of this season. Now that we're getting everybody back healthy, we're finally starting to hit our stride."
There's no question defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. has had to play musical chairs in Seattle's secondary all season long. Dunbar has missed four games with knee issues to this point, Adams missed four games with a groin injury and played through a couple games with a sore shoulder, and Griffin himself missed four games with a hamstring strain and concussion before returning on Monday.
The Seahawks also lost promising second-year defender Marquise Blair to a torn ACL early in the season, thrusting Ugo Amadi into action as the primary slot cornerback. It wasn't a desirable situation during a season amid a pandemic where offseason activities were already nixed, making it even more difficult to acclimate new players.
Rotating numerous reserves into the starting lineup, including Ryan Neal stepping in for Adams and Tre Flowers filling in for both Griffin and Dunbar, Seattle allowed an unfathomable 362 net passing yards per game through the first nine weeks of the season. The franchise was on pace to break Green Bay's record for pass defense ineptitude by more than 1,000 yards.
But since halftime of a Week 10 loss to the Rams, the Seahawks have dramatically turned things around. Even without Griffin or Dunbar in the lineup, they held Jared Goff and company to six points in the final two quarters, keeping the contest close throughout.
Building off that momentum while still missing two starters in the secondary, Seattle held Kyler Murray to 269 passing yards and Flowers limited star receiver DeAndre Hopkins to 51 yards on five receptions. Though the game went down to the final possession, they hung on for a crucial 28-21 win at Lumen Field.
Then on Monday night, albeit against a sputtering Eagles offense, the Seahawks forced five consecutive three-and-out possessions to open the game. Flowers allowed just three receptions for 20 yards, Griffin returned with a pair of passes defensed, Adams registered a team-high nine tackles and a sack, and Diggs picked off his third pass of the season as they gave up only 215 passing yards to Carson Wentz on the night.
"The swagger is through the roof, man," Adams told reporters on Monday. "We're playing with a lot of swagger and a lot of confidence. We know when we step on the field we're going to try to take the ball away. We're gonna get a sack, we're gonna get a pick. And we're gonna invite everybody to the party."
"We're ready to make that run," Griffin added. "We can only get better from here and that's the best part about it. Now we're starting to get everyone back healthy and start really building that chemistry. You can see it - we're talking more, we're enjoying it more - just that energy is different when all of us are out there at the same time."
To Griffin's point, the Seahawks should be well-positioned to only improve in the secondary entering the final stretch run due to a favorable schedule and better health.
Coming off a win over lowly Philadelphia, Seattle will play three straight teams ranked 24th or worse in points per game. On Sunday, the New York Giants may be playing with a backup quarterback in Colt McCoy with starter Daniel Jones nursing a leg injury. After that, the winless New York Jets will come to town followed by a road trip to face a 4-7 Washington Football Team.
In the near future, assuming Griffin, Diggs, and Adams all stay healthy themselves, the Seahawks hope to get Dunlap back from injured reserve to further reinforce the secondary heading towards postseason play. Even if that doesn't happen, Flowers has rebounded nicely from a difficult start to play some of his best football and the team should be in good hands if he remains in the lineup.
No longer a punchline and starting to play as expected before the season started in September, with camaraderie improving by the week, Griffin and his secondary mates are thinking big as the Seahawks push for a division title and the top seed in the NFC.
"It's cool cause Jamal brought that up this week and it's something we've got to build off of. Continue to build that chemistry, continue to elevate our game, play for each other and trust each other, that's what we're gonna bring for the next couple games and all the way into the playoffs until we get to the Super Bowl."