RENTON, WA - Through five games, the Seahawks haven't been able to find answers on defense, allowing more than 400 yards per game and becoming only the fourth team since the NFL/AFL merger to allow 450 or more yards in four consecutive games.
Among numerous reasons why Seattle's defense has struggled mightily so far, instability and poor play at cornerback has been a significant factor. The position has undergone immense turnover since training camp, with only three players still on the roster or practice squad who were practicing in mid-August. Consequently, they've already been playing musical chairs in recent weeks trying to address the problem.
On Wednesday, the Seahawks officially released veteran Tre Flowers, who opened the season as a starter at right cornerback across from D.J. Reed. Only two weeks earlier, coach Pete Carroll and defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. demoted him in favor of Sidney Jones, who was acquired from Jacksonville for a sixth-round pick in September.
Unfortunately, Jones hasn't yet provided the boost Seattle hoped he would in his first two starts. Knocking off "some rust" per Carroll, he has made several costly assignment-based errors, including a busted coverage that allowed 49ers receiver Deebo Samuel to score a 76-yard touchdown in Week 4. According to Pro Football Focus, he has given up 11 receptions for 270 yards and two touchdowns while yielding a startling 24.5 yards allowed per reception in coverage.
Since Jones has only played eight quarters, Carroll doesn't sound like he's ready to make another switch just yet. But if Jones' less-than-inspiring play doesn't improve quickly, he will soon have an intriguing option available to turn to in rookie cornerback Tre Brown.
Selected in the fourth round of April's draft out of Oklahoma, Brown began receiving repetitions with Seattle's first-team defense midway through training camp and looked to be moving up the depth chart. Unfortunately, he suffered a sprained knee during a 30-3 preseason loss to Denver and started the season on injured reserve, preventing him from competing for a starting role.
Now fully recovered, the Seahawks designated Brown to return to practice off injured reserve last week, but he wasn't able to do much given a short week of preparation for a Thursday night game against the Rams. This week, Carroll expects his workload to ramp up and as long as he doesn't have any setbacks, he should have an excellent shot at making his NFL debut against the Steelers on Sunday.
"This is the time that he comes back to action and let’s see if he can return to the level of play," Carroll said on Wednesday. "When he got hurt, he was right on the verge of competing to be getting playing time. He did a lot of positive things but unfortunately, his knee acted up and he couldn’t respond then. Like I said to him today, ‘Let’s pick up where you left off, show us you have your stuff together, and let’s see where that leaves you in the competition of it.' He will be battling as he is a full go and ready to go.”
While Brown lacks the prototypical size Seattle normally prefers at outside cornerback, he checks off numerous other boxes Carroll and his staff look for. He plays far bigger than his 5-foot-10, 186-pound frame would suggest, playing physical press coverage and being more than willing to make plays in the run game. He also has quality ball skills, as he produced four interceptions and 31 pass breakups in four seasons with the Sooners playing in the pass-happy Big 12 conference.
Based on what Carroll said about Flowers' shortcomings that led to his benching and eventual release on Wednesday, it's apparent the Seahawks are looking for a corner who can finish plays and create turnovers, something the veteran rarely did in three-plus seasons with the team.
"He did a lot of good stuff," Carroll said of Flowers. "He was a really good technician, but you have to finish the plays, make the plays, and come back when you don’t. You have to find successful plays to build on, so it was just his time to go on, that’s enough to say.”
Right now, the Seahawks rank 18th in the NFL in pass breakups (18) and have only two interceptions, which is tied for the third-fewest in the league. Both of those picks were made by safety Quandre Diggs and the combination of Reed, Flowers, and Jones have combined to record only three pass breakups in five games, which simply isn't good enough on the back end.
If Brown's college production translates to the NFL in that regard - he did make several nice pass breakups in coverage against DK Metcalf in training camp practices before getting hurt - he could be the solution Seattle has been desperately seeking on the outside. He's also an acclaimed special teams player and could contribute in that capacity as well.
For the time being, Reed and Jones are expected to start in Pittsburgh in Week 6. But after impressing in training camp, even considering his lack of experience, Carroll has never shied away from playing rookies right away and doesn't have any hesitation playing Brown if he earns the opportunity to start in the near future and those in front of him continue to struggle.
“I don’t have any apprehension. If you remember, we started Richard [Sherman] when we had to back in the day. That was probably the first guy that was a rookie. I don’t have any apprehension, we just need to get him back on the field. Last week, we were in walkthroughs all week long, so this is his first week back. We drafted him to let him compete for the job and we would see what would happen. We are sticking to that and it’s what is happening now.”