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INDIANAPOLIS - As one of the main expected takeaways from this week's NFL Scouting Combine, Seahawks general manager John Schenider and coach Pete Carroll understand the team's defense must improve in all phases to return to the Super Bowl, starting with the pass rush.

"Defensively, we were 26, I think," Schneider said while reflecting on Seattle's 2019 season. "We need to improve our pass rush, we need to try to get the coaches as many players as we possibly can on both sides of the ball, but obviously defensively we were ranked a little bit lower than we were on offense.”

With free agency just around the corner, the Seahawks are facing the prospects of potentially losing defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and Jarran Reed. The departure of either player would be a major loss, further depleting a unit that struggled to meet expectations a year ago.

But while there's a chance Reed could flee for greener pastures after a disappointing season, Seattle does have reason for optimism in the interior and it starts and ends with former undrafted signee Poona Ford.

Thrust into a starting role for the first time after a strong finish to his rookie season, Ford shined throughout training camp, drawing rave reviews from teammates such as center Justin Britt. With Reed suspended for the first six games, he took on a greater role alongside veteran Al Woods to open the season.

FILM BREAKDOWN: Revisiting Poona Ford's first full season as an NFL starter.

By the time the season wrapped up in late December, Ford had started 15 out of 16 games for the Seahawks, quietly setting career-highs with 32 tackles and five quarterback hits. He also recorded his first NFL sack, recovered a fumble, and batted a pass away that led to an interception by linebacker K.J. Wright.

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“Poona’s a good football player," Carroll commented. "He complements well, really mobile, was very durable, hung in there. When we lost Big Al [Woods], that hurt him a little bit. He just had to play more, probably more than we would like to."

When Woods received a suspension from the NFL in Week 16 for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, Ford played 63 snaps over the next two games for Seattle, playing a little over 40 percent of the team's snaps. Compared to the rest of the season, that percentage was actually a bit lower than usual.

But without Woods available in the playoffs, Ford did see a significant spike in playing time. He logged 44 snaps in a 17-9 wild card win over the Eagles and then played 43 snaps in a season-ending loss to the Packers, equating to nearly 70 percent of the Seahawks defensive plays.

Rarely leaving the field in those two playoff contests, Ford finished with six tackles and a tackle for loss and also generated a hurry against Aaron Rodgers in the divisional round, playing well on the biggest stage.

"We’d like to rotate more than we did," Carroll said. "But he did a good job, and we’re looking forward - he’ll just be so much smarter and well-versed when he comes back. He’ll take advantage of all kinds of good things. He’s a very instinctive football player."

Steering towards next season, it's possible Ford will see more snaps lined up in 3-tech alignment after primarily playing nose tackle in his first two years, especially if Reed chooses to leave. With that transition, the Seahawks will be looking for a bit more from the former Longhorn to help turn up the heat on quarterbacks.

While Ford has sporadically flashed as a pass rusher to this point, he has only produced five quarterback hits and 0.5 sacks in 26 regular season games. Much as he did in college, he's been overly reliant on his bull rush, though he did show signs of mixing in an effective swim move last season.

To take the next step in his progression, Ford will have to keep working on his hand technique and continue developing a few more counter moves to deploy against blockers when rushing the passer.

Already showing signs of dominant play defending the run, Carroll and the Seahawks remain hopeful Ford will be able to accomplish that. If he finds himself as a pass rusher in his second season as a starter and further develops his all-around game, he should emerge as one of the team's most improved players in 2020.