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The Key to Turning Around Seahawks' Maligned Defense? Simplification

It hasn't even been a calendar year since Ken Norton Jr. and his players held an "accountability" meeting after a dreadful loss to the Bills. Sitting at 1-2 and already two games out of first place in the NFC West, they are somehow in the same exact spot with none of the margin of error they had a year ago.

RENTON, WA - Already on a historic pace for all of the wrong reasons and threatening to shatter the NFL record for passing yards given up in a season, the Seahawks' defense hit rock bottom last November in a 44-34 loss to the Bills.

Coming out throwing against the NFL's softest secondary, quarterback Josh Allen and Buffalo rushed out to a 17-0 lead with 11:22 left to play in the first half. While Seattle tried to make things interesting in the second half, the defense simply couldn't make stops, yielding more than 400 passing yards with receivers running wide open all over the field and allowing the most points in a single game during the Pete Carroll era.

Making the situation far worse, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson threw a pair of interceptions and lost two fumbles, turning the football over four times to help fuel the Bills offensive onslaught.

"I don't recognize that game," a baffled Carroll said after the game. "We haven't seen us look like that and it's a game I don't have any place in my brain for. Really had a hard time in the first half getting started on defense and offense and they made it look easy."

During the week after the game, despite being 6-2 and well-positioned in the NFC West race, defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. and his players held what Carroll called a "remarkable" accountability meeting on Wednesday. Each player from each positional group outlined his responsibilities out of each of the team's base calls, who they were supposed to communicate with, and how each call was supposed to work out on the field when executed properly.

While Seattle lost again the next week in Los Angeles, a defense that had struggled all year surprisingly wasn't the problem. After giving up 17 points in the first half, the unit turned things around after halftime, yielding only six points in the final two quarters to keep the team in the game, building positive momentum that carried over to the remainder of the season.

Over the final seven regular season games, coinciding with the arrival of defensive end Carlos Dunlap and healthy return of Jamal Adams and Shaquill Griffin, the Seahawks thrived on defense in part due to getting back to the basics. Communication rapidly improved and players were playing faster without being burdened by schematic overcomplexity, helping the team allow just 15 points per game during that span to finish with a 12-4 record and capture a division title.

Fast forwarding to the present, however, Seattle finds itself in an eerily similar situation with far less margin for error. Though the 2021 season is only three weeks old, Carroll's defense has allowed an NFL-worst 440 yards per game and ranks in the bottom five in the league in passing and run defense.

“It feels a little bit the same. It feels like we’re giving up too much, and it feels like we’re in similar situations," Carroll said on Monday comparing the team's current issues with 2020. "We’ve been ahead. We were ahead in a lot of situations last year early on, and we jumped out on this one too. That’s similar. Responding to those situations and hold the score down has not been a strength of ours early in the year. I don’t know how to explain that to you in relative from one year to the next, but it seems similar."

What's been the biggest difference? Last year, the Seahawks were able to overcome their defensive deficiencies in the first half of the season with a potent offense led by MVP candidate Russell Wilson. They raced out to a 6-1 start despite giving up at least 27 points in five of those first seven games, positioning themselves to win the division despite their historically bad defense.

But this year, Seattle has already lost two games it should have won, coughing up double-digit leads and allowing Tennessee and Minnesota to score 17 and 23 points unanswered respectively. Partially because opponents were able to eat up large chunks of clock in the second half, Wilson and the offense haven't had many second half opportunities and have not been effective with those limited possessions, scoring a combined 13 points in the third and fourth quarter of games thus far.

Meanwhile, the rest of the NFC West has been dominant, with Arizona and Los Angeles opening with 3-0 records and San Francisco sitting in second place mere seconds away from being undefeated themselves.

Already staring at a two-game deficit in the division with challenging games against the 49ers and Rams on tap, how the next 10 days play out could make or break the Seahawks season. Growing pains were expected on offense with a new coordinator in Shane Waldron at the controls, but the defense wasn't supposed to be this bad. Not even close.

After a historic turnaround in the final two months of the 2020 season, while there were key personnel losses in Griffin, K.J. Wright, and Jarran Reed, most of the unit returned intact. Dunlap was re-signed to a two-year deal, Adams signed a record-breaking extension, and Seattle expected big jumps from linebackers Jordyn Brooks and Darrell Taylor to offset Wright's departure.

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In a season-opening victory over the Colts, the Seahawks' defense dominated for the most part, harassing quarterback Carson Wentz all afternoon and bottling up running back Jonathan Taylor while limiting them to 16 points. Since then, over the past two weeks in losses to Tennessee and Minnesota, a unit that entered the year with high expectations has been gashed for over 900 total yards and 60 points.

A top-five run defense a year ago, the Seahawks have allowed 352 rushing yards over the past two weeks alone. Ryan Tannehill and Kirk Cousins both exceeded 300 passing yards without throwing any interceptions, dicing up a beleaguered secondary that looks every bit as aimless as it did this time a year ago. The group can't consistently stop screens and has been plagued by untimely, unnecessary penalties that have further extended drives.

All of these recurring issues have left Carroll grasping for straws trying to fix his struggling defense. But if he and Norton have learned anything from the recent past, post-game comments and on-field actions from players such as cornerback Tre Flowers indicate there's too much on their plates right now.

Throughout Sunday's loss in Minnesota, defenders were frequently seen on the field expressing their frustrations about busted coverages and missed assignments, barking at teammates and extending their arms with their palms aiming towards the roof in disgust. The defense looked like anything but a cohesive unit and with receivers running open everywhere, it's blatantly obvious communication and scheme breakdowns are key ingredients in the team's defensive failures.

“It’s a schematic thing, I feel like. I’ve got my own questions to ask," Flowers said after the game, telling reporters there was confusion on how to defend certain routes in specific coverages. "It’s going to be an easy fix once we all get on the same page.”

Fellow cornerback D.J. Reed was even more blunt, saying "they out-schemed our ass," raising questions about Seattle's preparation as well as further highlighting complexity issues with their own defense.

When asked about the comments made by Reed and Flowers on Monday, Carroll said he hadn't seen or heard what they said, but he's eager to address the issues at hand during film study to make sure everyone is on the same bandwidth.

"I will tell you it’s a frustrating game. That’s why we have Monday, so we get back to business and we watch the film together. We talk through everything, and everybody gets on the same page," Carroll responded.

Interestingly, before facing the Titans two weeks ago, Carroll spoke at length about Seattle's desire to continue adding new packages to their base defense. At the time, he believed they were well ahead of where they were this time last year understanding the scheme, but the past two games have shown that not to be the case.

“We are trying to get better at our base stuff, always. You can really only go as far as your base defense takes you because you are out in it so much. We have been working on expanding the package, getting more familiarity with our players, more time with them," Carroll explained. "We were kind of scrambling a little bit last year early on but we’re not now. We are in good shape, but we are continuing to grow stuff and that’s part of the season’s process, nothing unusual about that."

Like last November, there's not an obvious panacea for everything ailing the Seahawks on defense. Coverage has been Charmin-soft on the back end, the pass rush hasn't been consistent, and execution defending the run has been incredibly disappointing. There's a lot to try to shore up in quick order.

Immediately after Sunday's defeat, Carroll sounded open to the idea of making some personnel changes, which could include giving cornerback Sidney Jones a shot after Flowers and Reed were picked on by Cousins. Rookie Tre Brown also could come off injured reserve this week and be in consideration, while the defensive line rotation remains a work in progress.

But ultimately, changing who is in the lineup will not matter if players aren't buying into the scheme or are playing a step slow because they don't fully understand what they are supposed to do. It's telling players such as Jones, who was acquired via trade in late August, still have been deemed not quite ready to play one month after arriving. This speaks to a system that is far too complicated and that falls on Carroll and Norton, who must look in the mirror, realize the role they have played in these defensive problems resurfacing, and make the adequate adjustments accordingly.

Whether that's done through another accountability meeting or simply watering down the playbook or other measures, the Seahawks must once again get back to the basics and do it promptly. With much at stake in the next few weeks, doing so could be the difference between climbing back into the NFC West race or falling out of the playoff picture completely before the calendar flips to October.